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Louisiana Takes on School Reform

Despite all the talk that we are in an era of unprecedented political polarization, there are some issues where bipartisanship is making a comeback, especially at the state level, where strained budgets are creating a pragmatism that hasn’t reached the federal level yet. This is most clearly seen in the Midwest and the Northeast, where a new generation of Democratic governors have joined their Republican counterparts in rolling back some of the cushy union rules that are contributing to the bankruptcy of their states. The other major area of bipartisan agreement is education reform. School voucher programs have been implemented in states from Virginia to Vermont, while concepts like value-added teacher assessments are gaining momentum on the right and the left.

Louisiana is now preparing a massive statewide voucher program that may become the most expansive in the country. Under this program, vouchers would be redeemable for more than just private schools: they could also be used for online courses, classes at public colleges, and even apprenticeships at local businesses. Nor are the changes confined to this program; the Wall Street Journal reports that proposed legislation would also allow parents to vote to convert their public schools into charters.

These changes could have a positive fiscal impact. A similar program in New Orleans reported that voucher students cost only about half as much to educate as their public-schooled peers. If these savings translate to the statewide level, it could take serious strain off the state budget.

Interestingly, while the studies that have been done are fairly fuzzy on whether students using vouchers actually end up doing better in school, there is no real sign that they do worse.  If those studies hold up (and science is rarely settled on complicated questions involving complex systems dominated by unpredictable human beings), this is a powerful argument to move rapidly toward shifting from the traditional public school, teacher union model. Half the cost and equal to marginally better results sounds like a good bargain.

Via Meadia doesn’t know whether the Louisiana experiment will work.  Voucher programs on this scale have never truly been tried before, and it will take years to iron out the kinks and analyze the results. But we are strongly in favor of experimental fixes on a system of public education that is seriously flawed and is in need of deep reform.

This is a bold test, and one that all Americans should watch.

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  • Brett

    It’s a pity we can’t try the experiment in a state that isn’t far-and-away the most corrupt in the US. That’s going to add more difficulties to the program than what will happen anyways.

  • Anthony

    This reads like an example of the subsidiarity priciple (state/local implementation of public good provided most competently). However as you asserted WRM, the Louisiana test ought to be watched…

  • Corlyss

    Well, don’t break out the champaigne yet. The scheme has to survive what will surely be 10 years of court challenges, including federal.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    Please don’t say it hasn’t been tried. Quebec — notoriously liberal — has had a full voucher system for well over 30 years. Religious schools included.

    Private schools bill the government for the standard per-student cost province-wide. Then they bill the parents for any difference. I had two sons in an excellent private religious high school in the 1980s and out-of-pocket cost was C$900 per year for the both of them.

    Any American state should look at the excellent example north of the border.

  • Mark Michael

    Re: “School voucher programs have been implemented in states from Virginia to Vermont, while concepts like value-added teacher assessments are gaining momentum on the right and the left.

    “Louisiana is now preparing a massive statewide voucher program that may become the most expansive in the country.”

    Indiana passed a statewide school voucher program in 2011 with wide applicability. About 4,000 students are using it for the 2011-12 school year. The vouchers are called “Choice Scholarships.”

    Ohio passed such a statewide voucher program in 2006; it also has statewide applicability. About 18,000 students are using it for this school year. The vouchers are called “EdChoice Scholarships.”

    Ohio raised the cap on the number of students from 14,000 to 60,000 in 2011. Unlike Louisiana’s new program and Indiana’s program, there is no family income cap on Ohio’s voucher program – provided fewer than the 60,000 cap apply. If more apply, than means-testing kicks in.

    Ohio’s House had drafted a very generous expansion to the EdChoice program for this legislative session, but when the voters rejected Senate Bill 5 last November which curbed the compensation of state and local workers (62 to 38 – a real “thumping”), the R’s in the legislature got scared and tabled the bill. Hopefully, they’ll resurrect it in due course, when they crawl out from under their capitol desks!

    Ohio’s EdChoice vouchers require the student to be in a failing school: received a “D” or “F” on state tests 2 out of 3 of the past school years. That (mostly) limits them to inner city schools. The expansion bill would have liberalized this requirement.

    Louisiana’s new law also limits eligibility to schools with test scores of “C”, “D”, or “F” – a little more liberal than Ohio.

    Indiana’s permits students in any public school district to apply without regard to the grades of the student’s public school. But it limits the family income to a certain percentage of the official poverty line. The rules are quite complex. The higher the family income, the smaller the voucher amount. The Indiana Dept. of Ed. does an excellent job of explaining the rules. Link:

    An example is a long table of expected Choice Scholarship amounts that parents can use:

    The reason for all of this complexity is the very cautious nature of the typical legislator. They are chary of the political clout of the teachers unions and educrats.

    Utah’s state legislature passed a statewide very general voucher program a few years ago and the educrats managed to get the voters to repeal it via a state referendum. That experience sticks in the minds of legislators.

    Vouchers have been used in The Netherlands since 1916. About 75% of Dutch children use those vouchers to attend mostly private religious (Catholic and Dutch Reformed) schools. The public schools in Holland have tried mightily to get the vouchers abolished, but it’s in the country’s constitution and they can’t get it modified. They have managed to impose lots of rules and regulations on those private schools – dictating things like teacher pay and some aspects of the curriculum.

    Dutch students regularly perform at the top of the scholastic heap in Europe – competing with Finland for that top spot, usually. Their costs are in the middling range.

    Sweden also has adopted vouchers and charter schools in a big way. The United Kingdom also has a move in that direction.

    In sum, school choice is a little more widespread than this post suggests – but it’s good to see the post!

  • Mark Michael

    Comment #3: “Well, don’t break out the champaigne yet. The scheme has to survive what will surely be 10 years of court challenges, including federal.”

    Ohio’s Cleveland school voucher program was challenged in the SCOTUS and was ruled constitutional. Milwaukee’s voucher program also was challenged at the state and federal levels and also was ruled constitutional.

    Indiana’s was challenged at the state level and was ruled constitutional Jan 12, 2012. See:


    Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program is perfectly constitutional. That, in a nutshell, was the ruling issued by Marion County Superior Court Judge Michael Keele today in Meredith v. Daniels. The trial court rejected every legal claim brought by the plaintiffs—who are supported by both state and national teachers’ unions—against the program, and it ruled in favor of both the state and two parents who have intervened in the lawsuit in defense of the program….

    Last August, the trial court rejected the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction against the Choice Scholarship Program until the court reached a final decision on the constitutionality of the program. Today’s ruling is a final decision that marks the end of litigation about the program at the trial court level. It also means that the almost 4,000 students who have received Choice Scholarships can continue—without disruption—to be able to attend the private schools their parents have selected.

    In rejecting the argument of the plaintiffs that the Choice Scholarship Program improperly benefits private religious schools, the Court held that the program “is not in place ‘for the benefit’ of religious schools. To the contrary, the CSP bestows benefits onto scholarship recipients who may then choose to use the funding for education at a public, secular private, or religious private school.”

    “Today’s ruling is a resounding win for Indiana parents and students, and it is a major defeat for school choice opponents,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Bert Gall, who—alongside Indiana Solicitor General Tom Fisher—argued in favor of the constitutionality of the program before the court on December 19. “The court’s well-reasoned decision makes clear that the Choice Scholarship Program is constitutional and that the teachers’ unions’ lawsuit against it is completely meritless.”

    IJ client and school choice mom Heather Coffy, whose three children have received Choice Scholarships, said, “Thanks to today’s ruling, I and thousands of other parents across the state of Indiana can continue to choose schools for our children that best suit their educational needs.”

    IJ Senior Attorney Dick Komer said, “The court got it exactly right: While the Choice Scholarship Program is inconsistent with the self-serving agenda of the teachers’ unions who are supporting this lawsuit, it is perfectly consistent with the Indiana Constitution.” He added, “We expect the teachers’ unions to appeal, but we are confident that the trial court’s decision will be affirmed.”

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