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.

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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.

Superintendent search

Newark superintendent finalists make their pitches to the public

The four candidates vying to become Newark’s next superintendent each claimed to be the best person for the job during a much-anticipated forum on Friday.

The two-hour event at Science Park High School was the public’s first opportunity to hear from the finalists — who include two Newark natives and two outsiders — and its last before the city school board is expected to vote for their choice on Tuesday. Whoever is chosen will become the first full superintendent to lead the system since it was returned to local control this year after a decades-long state takeover.

The finalists are former Baltimore city schools chief Andres Alonso; Newark Interim Superintendent A. Robert Gregory; Newark Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon; and Sito Narcisse, chief of schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee. They were selected by a seven-person search committee who considered candidates from across the country.

Each finalist was given 30 minutes on Friday evening to introduce himself and describe his qualifications for the high-profile position. Unlike some districts, the school board did not interview the candidates during the public event. (Instead, they were scheduled to hold closed-door interviews on Saturday.) And the roughly 200 audience members were not allowed to ask questions.

Denise Crawford, a parent who attended the forum, said that community members should have been part of the search committee, which included three school board members and four people appointed by the mayor and the state education commissioner. But Tafshier Cosby, whose son attends a Newark charter school, said Friday’s event offered the public a chance to hear each candidate’s vision for the 35,000-student Newark Public Schools system.

“Whoever has the best plan for moving NPS forward,” she said, “that is who I’m rooting for.”

Below are highlights from each candidate’s remarks in the order that they spoke on Friday.

Sito Narcisse

PHOTO: Sara Mosle
Sito Narcisse

As an outsider, Narcisse promised to become part of the community if he is hired.

“My wife and I will be living in the city,” he said, adding that he would shop at the local grocery stores and attend a local church. “So I’ll have a vested interest.”

Narcisse, who is the son of Haitian immigrants, has overseen schools in five different districts in four states. He was a principal in the Pittsburgh and Boston school systems, and a top official in two large Maryland school districts.

In 2016, he became the second-highest-ranking official chief in the Metro Nashville system, which includes 169 schools serving 88,000 students. He recently applied to become superintendent of a Florida district, but was not selected.

If he led Newark, he said he would push to pay teachers and classroom aides more and would be open with the public about how he allocates funding. He also vowed to hire Newark residents for positions within his administration.

“I will not be doing things to you,” he said. “I will be doing things with you.”

Andres Alonso

PHOTO: Sara Mosle
Andres Alonso

Before he became a New York City school official and later the chief of Baltimore City Public Schools, Alonso spent 12 years teaching in Newark schools.

Now, he wants to return to where he started.

“This is the job I always wanted,” he told the crowd. (He was recently in the running to become Los Angeles’ superintendent, but said he withdrew when the Newark position became available.)

A Cuban immigrant, Alonso said he arrived at school in Union City, New Jersey when he was 12 not knowing how to speak English. He went on to study at Columbia University and Harvard, where he is now a professor in the Graduate School of Education.

From 1987 to 1998, he taught in Newark at a school for emotionally disturbed students and at Peshine Avenue Elementary School. During that period, he gained legal custody of one of his students.

In 2007, he became CEO of the Baltimore city school system, where he closed many low-performing schools, oversaw the expansion of the charter-school sector, and tied teacher pay to their performance. During his six years as schools chief, he said he had “an extraordinary relationship” with the teachers union and with parents.

On Friday, he said that former Mayor Cory Booker and former state education commissioner Christopher Cerf had asked him in 2012 to run Newark’s school system. He turned down the job, he said, because he did not want to carry out a premade “blueprint” for the district. (Instead, Cerf became superintendent.)

Now that the district is back under local control, Alonso said he is ready to lead it.

“I want to come full circle,” he said. “I think I could help the system immensely.”

A. Robert Gregory

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A. Robert Gregory at the unveiling of a new science-education center this month.

Gregory attended Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Newark before his family moved to Pennsylvania, where he eventually went to college and majored in education. At his college graduation, his grandmother urged him to return to his hometown.

“She whispered to me, ‘Come back home, the kids need you,’” said Gregory, whose father was a longtime Newark principal.

Gregory taught at Harold Wilson and Camden middle schools in Newark before founding American History High School, a well-regarded magnet school. In 2015, he was promoted to assistant superintendent of high schools and, last June, Cerf named him deputy superintendent. When Cerf stepped down in February, Gregory became interim superintendent.

In that role, he has increased spending on bilingual and special education and negotiated a contract that raises the wages of school cafeteria workers, security guards, and custodians, he said during his presentation. He also supported students who joined in a national school walkout to call for stricter gun laws, and he is planning a conference next month where teachers will be able to share classroom ideas.

“I am the educator,” he said, “who vows to work toward restoring trust while galvanizing this city around one common goal: high-quality education for all.”

Roger León

PHOTO: Sara Mosle
Roger León

León began by emphasizing his deep Newark roots and ties to each section of the city.

He said he was born in the Central Ward, lived in the South Ward, grew up in the East Ward, visited his godparents in the North Ward, and met his first good friends in the West Ward.

“The journey of Newark has been my journey,” said León, whose parents were Cuban immigrants.

A Science Park High School graduate, León went on to coach the magnet school’s renowned debate team for eight years. He later taught middle-school algebra before becoming principal of Dr. William H. Horton School and then University High School of the Humanities.

He has been an assistant superintendent for 10 years. If he becomes schools chief, León said he would invest in attendance counselors and mental-health services for students. He also said he would encourage students to travel abroad, and would make sure that parents have different types of schools to choose from.

His past accomplishments are evidence “of how high we will go, how fast we will get there,” he said, and “of how we will learn and do it together.”

concurrent enrollment

New state law forces Denver to change course on its ‘early colleges’

PHOTO: Denver Post file

A change in state law meant to rein in the cost of Colorado high schools that allow students to stay longer to earn college credit has forced the Denver district to slow down its expansion of the model.

District officials were proposing adding another “early college,” as the schools are known, to the seven that already exist in Denver Public Schools. But on Thursday, Antonio Esquibel, the district’s executive director of early college who submitted the application to open the school, confirmed he was withdrawing it.

“With the change in statute, it will force us to have to rethink what early college is and what it should look like in Denver Public Schools,” Esquibel said.

Denver’s seven early colleges are:

  • Southwest Early College (charter)
  • CEC Early College
  • West Early College
  • Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College
  • High Tech Early College
  • Manual High School

The school board was scheduled to vote on whether to approve the school, temporarily called Denver Early College High School, at a meeting Thursday night. It could have opened as soon as 2019, either as a brand new school or a replacement for a low-performing school. The application said it would “provide all students the option to enroll for an additional one to two years to obtain credits leading toward or culminating in an associate’s degree.”

But the change in state law essentially prohibits early college students from staying in high school for a fifth or sixth year for the sole purpose of taking free college courses.

A bill lawmakers approved earlier this month defines early colleges as schools where students earn an associate’s degree or at least 60 college credits alongside their high school diploma. The bill specifies that the curriculum “must be designed to be completed in four years.”

Lawmakers in the Colorado House and Senate passed the bill, but it has not yet been signed into law by the governor. Denver district officials did not testify against it publicly.

Lawmakers wanted to change the law because they feared the early college model would become too expensive. Currently, the state pays for early college students who stay in high school for a fifth or sixth year at the regular per-pupil rate, which varies by district. In the case of Denver Public Schools, it’s $7,939 per student this year, according to state budget analysts.

There are currently 20 early colleges in Colorado, up from five in 2009. While only 315 students this year were in their fifth or sixth year, trends indicated that number would grow. Last year, there were 224 students in a fifth or sixth year. In 2013, there were only 84.

Denver’s proposed early college was based on a six-year model. At a presentation to the school board last week, Esquibel said most Denver students would likely earn just 12 college credits during their first four years of high school, and then stay for a fifth and sixth year earning 24 credits each year to get them to a total of 60, which is typically how many credits a student needs to earn an associate’s degree.

Most students in Denver’s early colleges are students of color from low-income families who are on track to be the first in their families to go to college, Esquibel said.

“Unfortunately, our students of color don’t have as much access or opportunity to take college courses or, for that matter, enroll in a college,” he told the board. “So the concept of an early college was created specifically for that reason: to buck the trend.”

School board members praised the idea.

“We have these age-old timelines that, for some reason, this is how we believe young people should go through school,” said board president Anne Rowe. “What you’ve been able to do is really push the model. … That out-of-the-box thinking is so important.”

Given the impending change in state law, Esquibel said he and other district officials will spend the next several months figuring out how to make the early college model work in four years instead of six. The leaders of other Colorado early colleges have said most of their students complete the requirements in that time, and Esquibel said Denver officials have been studying early colleges in Texas whose students do it in four years.

“It’s a little daunting, but we’ve seen schools across the country doing it,” he said.

Esquibel said he hopes to re-submit the application for a new early college in the fall.

The district will have to reconfigure its six existing early colleges, as well, he said. (The seventh early college is a charter school.) However, high school juniors and seniors currently enrolled and planning to stay for a fifth or sixth year won’t be affected by the bill. It allows districts to receive full state per-pupil funding for those students in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years.