Vouchers and Education

While the constitutional challenge to Indiana’s much-hyped voucher program is pending in our Supreme Court, it might be instructive to look to Louisiana, where Bobby Jindal’s equally-hyped version has just been declared unconstitutional. The legal issues are very different–both challenges were based upon state constitutional provisions, and Indiana’s constitution doesn’t contain the provision that was fatal to the Louisiana program. So there’s no legal equivalence.

Instead, what we can learn from Louisiana falls under the old adage that “there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.”

Even the most well-meaning privatization efforts tend to founder on the shoals of accountability. When the effort involves education, those problems multiply. Despite lots of rhetoric, most academic studies of school voucher programs find that the only area of improvement is in parent satisfaction. Even in well-run programs, student performance remains where one would expect based upon a variety of sociological factors. Reports about rising test scores tend, upon further inquiry, to be based on the ability of private schools to eject students who aren’t making the grade.

Those results come from well-run programs. Louisiana is a poster child for the programs where ideology trumps accountability and basic common sense.

A report from Louisiana Progress, a good-government business group, is instructive. The group petitioned the Board of Education to set at least minimal standards for schools receiving vouchers–evidence that the schools have adequate physical facilities, that they not dramatically increase either tuition or enrollment in order to benefit financially from the program, etc. Calling the program “poorly thought out and poorly implemented,” the report noted that schools selected to participate were not chosen on the basis of educational quality. Most were religious, and many of those quite fundamentalist: the New Living Word School had been approved to increase its enrollment from 122 to 315 students, despite lacking physical facilities for that number; increased its tuition from 200/month to 8500/year, and has a basketball team but no library. Students “spend most of the day watching TV. ..Each lesson consists of an instructional DVD that intersperses bible verses with subjects like chemistry or composition.”

Another voucher school, the Upperroom Bible Church Academy, operates in “a bunker-like building with no windows or playground.”

There are 120 private schools authorized to receive vouchers in Louisiana. A significant percentage are “Bible-based” institutions with what have been characterized as “extreme anti-science and anti-history curriculums” that champion creationism. (One is run by a former state legislator who refers to himself as a “prophet or apostle.” Wouldn’t that¬†encourage you to enroll your child??) A number use textbooks produced by Bob Jones University.

Mother Jones has a list of 14 favorite lessons being taught by Louisiana’s voucher schools. Among them: dinosaurs and people hung out together; gays have no more claims to ‘special rights’ than child molesters and rapists.

Your tax dollars at work.

Louisiana Progress pointed out–reasonably–that since the reason for the voucher program was that Louisiana’s public schools were not meeting educational accountability standards, it makes no sense to spend tax dollars on private/parochial schools that aren’t even being asked to meet those same standards.

We Americans have a love affair with easy answers. We also tend to believe that–whatever the task–private enterprises will outperform governmental ones. And we have a well-documented belief that change equals improvement. Unfortunately, solving real-world problems requires analysis. Sometimes, there is an easy answer; sometimes, a private entity is better suited to solve a certain problem. Sometimes, change is warranted–and positive.

Sometimes, not so much.

If we want to improve education, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. We might start with: what is the content of a good education? How can we determine whether schools are providing that content? What can we do to improve the prospects that children who enter our schools without the necessary background and tools will actually learn?

Louisiana and many other states–including our own–don’t want to grapple with those questions. They want an easy way out.

Even Adam’s pet dinosaur knew better.

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