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.

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.