Future of Schools

School vouchers make a comeback

NEW ORLEANS — As Louisiana debuts one of the nation’s most extensive private-school voucher programs, deep divides persist over who should be accountable for ferreting out academic failure and financial abuse: the government or parents.

File photo courtesy Hechinger Report

Across the country, vouchers have resurged in a big way over the last two years — both as a form of school choice and a political lightning rod. Republican governors in Louisiana, Indiana, New Jersey and other states have championed them as a solution to the challenges besetting public education. More recently, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney joined the chorus, saying he hopes to turn an eight-year-old voucher program in Washington, D.C. into a “national showcase.”

About 5,600 students and 119 private schools will participate in Louisiana’s new statewide voucher program this fall.

In partnership

  • The Hechinger Report is a nonprofit news organization that is focused on producing in-depth education journalism. It is an independently funded unit of Teachers College, Columbia University.

Learn more

Much of the debate over vouchers centers on whether they should exist at all – partly because the term is so combustible, many politicians have opted for the milder term “scholarship” to describe new programs. But in states like Louisiana and Wisconsin, where vouchers are already a fait accompli, policymakers are just as divided over how much government regulation participating private schools should face.

On one side are the free-market purists who argue that parents provide the best form of oversight. Under this mindset, families receiving school vouchers can and should be counted on to decide what constitutes a quality education for their children—even if that includes sending their kids to schools teaching that dragons are real, or that the Ku Klux Klan worked in the service of justice.

On the other side are those who argue that the government provides the best form of accountability, particularly when public tax dollars are involved. Under this mindset, only substantial advance vetting of participating voucher schools can prevent widespread fraud and abuse.

“Unfortunately, the political debate is still on ideological grounds: ‘I believe in government,’ or ‘I believe in the market,’ ” said Jeffrey R. Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

But Henig and others see more consensus in research and academic circles. There, even some of the most vociferous champions of vouchers now believe a free-market approach to schooling needs limits.

Howard Fuller, the founder and director of Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning and a long-time voucher supporter, says he continues to believe in the importance of school choice for low-income families. But he no longer believes a free-market approach to accountability will safeguard taxpayer dollars and the well-being of children.

“Parent choice alone will not guarantee quality,” he said.

‘Tactical’ privatization

Vouchers never completely died: Louisiana, Ohio and Wisconsin all created or significantly expanded programs between 2006 and 2011. However, the debate was far more muted in the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency and the early years of the Obama administration.

During that period, a group of moderate Democrats and Republicans coalesced around a vision of education reform that featured greater parental choice – usually in the form of charter schools – and stricter accountability provisions – usually in the form of testing – for public-school teachers and students.

That coalition still exists, and charters continue to dwarf vouchers in both growth and overall size. But over the last two years, several ambitious Republican politicians trying to make a name for themselves — and distinguish themselves from Democrats on education — have gravitated back to vouchers. In 2011, more than 30 states introduced school voucher bills, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That was an increase of more than 300 percent from the previous year, when nine voucher bills were introduced.

Henig has identified three types of privatization: “pragmatic” privatization aims to force government to do a better job; “systemic” privatization represents a broad weakening or erosion in the government’s role; and “tactical” privatization is designed to advance the political interest of a party or candidate. While voucher advocates may be motivated by all three goals, tactical privatization appears to be fueling at least some of the current efforts, he says.

“Because of broader battles, there’s pressure on Republicans to more sharply differentiate themselves by aligning with pro-market, anti-government positions,” said Henig. “It makes for a clearer, sharper story line.”

Indeed, while the political confederacies surrounding vouchers have historically been complex—allying Democrats who view it as a social-justice issue with extreme right-wing politicians in some cases — recent debates have fallen along more traditional party lines.

Concerns about fraud

Accountability has long been an Achilles’ heel for voucher advocates.

For years, schools in a Milwaukee program could receive hundreds of thousands in public funds each year if they met a few very minimal standards. Up until 2005, the primary requirements were that schools have a building occupancy permit from the city and enrolled students. They also had to meet the state’s definition of a non-public school, but that was “very nominal, and purposefully so,” said Tony Evers, the Wisconsin state superintendent.

Many participants in the program were established Catholic and Lutheran schools, but a significant number emerged only after the voucher program started. “You had these well-intended operators who had absolutely no idea about running a school,” said Evers.

In at least a few cases, the problems extended beyond naiveté. A convicted rapist founded one school, Alex’s Academics of Excellence. Despite the founder’s criminal record, Alex’s managed to attract families for several years, continuing to do so even after numerous evictions and allegations of illegal drug use on campus. At a second school, Mandella School of Science and Math, the principal — who also founded the school — used proceeds from state voucher payments to buy two Mercedes-Benz automobiles.

The state tightened up on accountability, requiring participating schools to earn pre-accreditation, among other changes. Between 2009 and 2012, a board within Howard Fuller’s institute at Marquette vetted new applicants. The board set a high bar, with only 13 of 103 prospective school operators making it through the approval process over that time period, or about 13 percent.

The pre-accreditation process “kept out scores of schools that would have failed,” said Evers.

Fuller and Evers believe low-income parents want what is best for their children. But they might still be enticed to a severely sub-par school by a slick marketing campaign—or out of desperation.

“A lot of the mom-and-pop school operators were reaching out to friends and relatives,” said Evers. “The marketing is as local as it can get.”

The future of vouchers in Louisiana

Louisiana’s new voucher program relies more on back-end than front-end accountability, a source of contention for critics who argue that it has opened the door to financial abuse and academic failure.

Although most of the schools are run by established entities like local archdioceses, red flags have already been raised about a few operators: A blogger reported that a self-proclaimed prophet and apostle is in line to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in voucher payments for a school called Light City Christian Academy. The operator of another participating school, Conquering Word Christian Academy, is under investigation for FEMA fraud. And it’s unclear whether a third school, New Living Word, has enough teachers and space to serve the dozens of students it plans to accept through the voucher program.

Officials at Conquering Word and New Living Word did not return calls seeking comment for this story. And when a reporter visited Light City Christian Academy school last week, officials said they did not have time to talk and that no one would be available for a phone conversation.

State Superintendent John White said Conquering Word will not be allowed to accept any new students through the program this year. But students who attended in previous years through a New Orleans-specific voucher program will still be eligible for scholarships. Light City will enroll 80 students through the program, and New Living Word will enroll 165 – about half of the seats that school leaders requested. In the latter case, the school signed a memorandum of understanding addressing facilities concerns and authorizing quarterly site visits by state officials.

White said the accountability provisions impose a “moderate screen” on new school applicants and “extremely swift back-end consequences” for private schools that underperform.

However, White has refused to provide records on that screening process until after the school year is already under way. He said state officials rejected applications from 10 schools because they did not meet criteria laid down in the initial law. After developing additional regulations, they removed two others and reduced the number of seats available at several schools. With 119 private schools participating, that means the state approved about 90 percent of applicants — compared to 13 percent in Milwaukee, although in that city most participating schools were grandfathered in by the time the approval board was created.

Students receiving vouchers in Louisiana take the same standardized tests as public-school students. If a private school has at least 40 voucher students enrolled in tested grades (or at least 10 students per tested grade), the school’s overall performance must meet a certain threshold—the same threshold that public schools must meet to avoid closure or reconstitution—for it to continue accepting new voucher students.

This year, however, only about a quarter of participating schools will enroll more than 40 voucher students in tested grades; those schools encompass about 65 percent of the program’s enrollment. State officials say they anticipate the accountability provision will capture 85 percent of students by the program’s fourth year.

That’s too little, too late, some critics say. “The state needed to establish academic eligibility requirements [on] the front-end,” said Peter Reichard, projects manager at the Bureau of Governmental Research, an independent research organization in New Orleans. In a statement, BGR officials said, “Short of no accountability standards at all, it is difficult to imagine a lower standard of performance than what the proposed system offers.”

White argues that his oversight program relies on a healthy mixture of market forces and governmental oversight. “Responsible policy always tries to empower citizenry by not over-regulating, but at the same time by being unforgiving when it comes to failure,” he said, adding that the plan is to “regulate failure by not accepting failure.”

But in a sign that he might be bowing to pressure from skeptics, White said last week that he will likely seek to tighten requirements for prospective private-school operators in the state—regardless of whether they accept voucher students.

In the meantime, future voucher policy – as well as Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education legacy – may well be shaped by what happens on the ground in Louisiana this school year.

Henig said the issue will become more volatile for Jindal if “what comes in over the transom makes broad support of market principles and choice look irresponsible.”

Sarah Carr, a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report, is the author of Hope Against Hope, which tells the story of the New Orleans public schools post-Katrina. The book will be released by Bloomsbury Press in February 2013.

This story also appeared on NBCNews.com.

who's next?

What you should know about seven people who could be the next New York City schools chancellor

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Carmen FariƱa's retirement.

Nearly a month after Carmen Fariña announced that this school year would be her last as New York City’s chancellor, New Yorkers are no closer to knowing who will succeed her.

As city emissaries reach out to possible replacements around the country and City Hall vets people inside the Department of Education, speculation has mounted quickly. Will Mayor Bill de Blasio go with a trusted insider? Or will he try to attract a celebrated outsider who could drum up some excitement about his education agenda?

What’s clear is that de Blasio has committed to picking an educator for the slot, ruling out some officials who have played a leading role in his biggest education initiatives so far. Low pay, an established education agenda, and de Blasio’s reputation for being a micromanager may make it tough to recruit a high-profile outsider. Still, the job remains among the most prestigious education posts in the country.

Everyone who pays attention to education in the city has ideas about who might be under consideration.

After talking to more than a dozen people who keep a close eye on the education department and City Hall, some of them from within, we’ve sorted through the rumors and political jockeying to handicap several contenders.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Miami-Dade County Public Schools
Alberto Carvalho

Alberto Carvalho

Who he is: Carvalho is the widely admired leader of Miami’s school system, where he has spent his entire career. Under his leadership, the district’s finances and academic performance improved. He has an inspiring life story, too: He became an educator after first coming to the United States from Portugal as an undocumented immigrant.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Politically savvy, skilled in engaging with the media, and prolific on Twitter, Carvalho would certainly fill the mayor’s requirement of being able to sell an education agenda. During his tenure, he helped convince county voters to approve a $1 billion bond for school infrastructure and technology upgrades.

Why you might not: Things are going well for Carvalho in Miami, where his contract runs until 2020 — and he’s balked at high-profile opportunities in the past. Like other outsiders, he’s already far outearning the city chancellor’s salary: He makes roughly $345,000 in Miami now, compared to nearly $235,000 for Fariña in New York.

What he says: “My commitment to Miami is so strong and I have demonstrated it in the face of political opportunities,” he told Chalkbeat. “It’s really hard for me to imagine a set of circumstances that would lead to a different decision on my part.”

Kathleen Cashin

Kathleen Cashin

Who she is: Cashin is currently a member of New York’s Board of Regents, where she helps set education policy for the entire state. Before that, she spent more than three decades as a New York City educator — first as a teacher and principal before working her way up to be a regional superintendent.

Why you might see her at Tweed: De Blasio has signaled he’s looking for someone like Fariña, and Cashin fits that mold. She believes, as Fariña does, that principals must be veteran educators who earn their autonomy (she resisted Bloomberg’s efforts to hire principals who were not experienced educators). Crucially, she has shown results boosting student achievement in high-poverty areas of the city, a problem de Blasio has struggled to solve.

Why you might not: Cashin recently turned 70, she is not a person of color, and is not likely to bring lots of new ideas to the table.

What she says: Did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

What a supporter says: “She had the toughest district in the entire city and she handled her district not only with focus,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, but also “elegance and professionalism beyond belief. I have so much respect for Dr. Cashin.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Rudy Crew

Rudy Crew

Who he is: Crew is the president of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, part of the city’s public university system. He previously served as New York City’s schools chief for four years in the late 1990s under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, spent another four running the Miami-Dade county school district, and did a brief (and controversial) stint as an education official in Oregon.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Crew is a black man, which makes him a standout among the education department’s top ranks. He knows the political landscape and has continued to take an interest in the city’s schools through his work at Medgar Evers, where he created a program that provides training to local public-school teachers and early-college classes for students. Crew also seems to share de Blasio’s belief that high-quality instruction should take priority over school integration, and as chancellor, he set up a turnaround program for struggling schools that has clear parallels with the mayor’s Renewal initiative.

Why you might not: While Crew has had some success boosting student achievement, he also has a record of political clashes. He left Miami after the school board’s chair said they had developed “irreconcilable differences” and Oregon amid controversy about his commitment to the job.

What he says: Crew declined to be interviewed, but a spokeswoman said he “has not been contacted about the job.”

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
MaryEllen Elia

MaryEllen Elia

Who she is: Currently the head of New York’s state education department, Elia previously led one of the nation’s 10 largest school districts, Hillsborough County in Florida. There, she gained a reputation for working closely with the local teachers union on policy issues that unions often oppose. She was named Florida’s 2015 superintendent of the year before being ousted by the school board shortly afterward, in a move that garnered some local and national criticism.

Why you might see her at Tweed: While Elia is considered a long shot, it could make sense for de Blasio to give her a look. She’s a good match for de Blasio’s overall orientation: She’s progressive-minded — see the state’s new initiative to help districts integrate their schools — but also believes that schools should be held accountable for helping students learn. Elia has spent nearly three years running the state education department without making enemies. She also hasn’t set out to make a big splash in her leadership, which could be appealing for a mayor whose agenda is already in place.

Why you might not: She appears comfortable in her role in Albany, where she’s helping the state adapt to the new federal education law, and reconsider its approach to teacher evaluations, graduation requirements, and more. Also, she has no experience working in New York City.

What she says: “Commissioner Elia has had no discussions about this,” said State Education Department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “She loves her job as State Education Commissioner and remains committed to fostering equity in education for all children across New York State.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Dorita Gibson

Dorita Gibson

Who she is: Gibson is the education department’s second in command as Fariña’s senior deputy chancellor. She has served at virtually every level of leadership within the New York City school system, rising from teacher to assistant principal, principal, and high-level superintendent. She’s helped lead big changes in the way the education department supports schools, and is partly responsible for overseeing the mayor’s signature “Renewal” program for struggling schools.

Why you might see her at Tweed: She’s already there, an advantage at a moment when some outsiders seem unenthusiastic about taking over the school system. Gibson is one of Fariña’s top deputies who leads initiatives that are core to the city’s education agenda. She’s also a longtime educator, which de Blasio has said is a requirement, and the department’s top-ranking deputy of color.

Why you might not: Despite being Fariña’s number two, Gibson has kept a low profile, and rarely appears in the press. Her absence raises questions about her interest or likelihood of assuming the top position.

What she says: Declined to comment.

What people are saying: Gibson “seems to be a natural successor,” writes David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “The only problem is that, like other central Department of Education officials, she doesn’t seem to have the support of the mayor or chancellor.”

PHOTO: Via LinkedIn
Cheryl Watson-Harris

Cheryl Watson-Harris

Who she is: Watson-Harris is the education department’s senior executive director of field support, who is responsible for helping manage centers that support schools on instructional and operational issues. She started her career as a New York City teacher before working as a principal and superintendent in Boston for nearly two decades. She assumed her current role in 2015.

Why you might see her at Tweed: Watson-Harris rose quickly from running just one of the large school-support centers to overseeing all seven. Multiple sources said she was perceived as being groomed for a higher-ranking position at the education education department. And on her Twitter feed, where she acts as a public booster for the school system, she notes that she’s the parent of a student in the city’s public schools.

Why you might not: She would have to leapfrog a number of more senior officials who have years of experience at higher rungs of education department leadership, including Gibson. Insiders question whether she’s ready to make that jump.

What she says: Declined to comment.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Phil Weinberg

Phil Weinberg

Who he is: Weinberg is one of Fariña’s six deputy chancellors. He began his career teaching at Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology — and wound up staying for 27 years before rising to principal in 2001. In 2014, Fariña plucked him from that post to head up a resurrected “teaching and learning” division that had been dormant for years.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Weinberg is widely respected among educators and has avoided major blowback during his four years leading teaching and learning at the department. The things he’s passionate about — including strong teaching, coherent curriculum, and collaboration among educators — are close to Fariña’s heart, which would matter if she plays a strong role in choosing her successor.

Why you might not: His efforts have been peripheral to the initiatives the de Blasio administration cares about most, such as prekindergarten and community schools. He seems to prefer an internal role to a public-facing one. And he’s a white man — hardly the top demographic choice for the leader of a district where more than 70 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

What he says: Did not respond to a message seeking comment.

That’s the short list, but many other names have also surfaced.

Josh Starr, a former New York City official who now works at PDK International, and Pedro Noguera, a professor at UCLA, would make good fits for de Blasio’s progressive platform, but both have said they are not in the running.

Other names that have been floated as potential contenders include Lillian Lowery, a former district superintendent and top education official in Maryland and Delaware (now a vice president at Ed Trust); Angelica Infante-Green, a fast-rising deputy commissioner in New York’s state education department who is reportedly in the running for Mass. state education commissioner; and Betty Rosa, a former superintendent in the Bronx and chancellor of New York’s Board of Regents.

There’s also a cadre of educators who have left New York City for other school systems and might be interested in returning, including Andres Alonso, currently an education professor at Harvard, and Jaime Aquino, who helps lead New Leaders for New Schools, a non-profit organization that focuses on training principals.

Philissa Cramer and Christina Veiga contributed reporting.

Story booth

With no art teacher, students at this Detroit school say their talents go unnurtured


When the eighth-grade students at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side talk about things their school needs, they point to a classmate named Casey.

“He’s a great artist,” one student said. “He can look at a picture and draw it in like five minutes and it will look exactly the same.”

If Casey attended school in the suburbs, his friends believe, he and other talented students would have an art class where they could nurture their skills.

“They don’t have the time to put in the work with their talent because we don’t have those extra-curricular activities,” another classmate said.

The students at the K-8 school have no art, music or gym teachers — a common problem in a district where resources are thin and where a teacher shortage has made it difficult for schools like this one to find teachers for many subjects, including the arts.

While the Detroit district has committed to expanding arts programs next year, it would need to find enough teachers to fill those positions.

“People out there think we’re not smart and they always criticize us about what we do,” Casey said. “We can always show them how smart we are,” he said, but that requires “getting the type of programming that we’re supposed to.”

Chalkbeat spoke with students at the school as part of a “story booth” series that invites students, teachers and parents to discuss their experiences in Detroit schools.

Watch the full video of the Paul Robeson/Malcolm X students below and please tell us if you know someone who would like their story featured in a future story booth.