This is the fourth year of Louisiana's state-wide voucher program. It allows students who qualify for free or reduced lunches and who
- attended a school rated C-F last year or
- were newly assigned to a C-F school
While one of the primary proponents of the voucher system was the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the majority of middle-class Catholic schools do not accept any voucher students. The only high schools that accept vouchers are those that are historically African-American.
A few of the Catholic elementary schools have accepted a few voucher students per grade, but
most of the Catholic schools that accept vouchers have accepted a lot of voucher students simply because they needed the tuition money--in other words, they were in danger of closing.
One was a school my son attended. While most Catholic schools at that time had 30-35 kids per class, that school's classes were in the low 20's. The school itself was in an older neighborhood and between a local hospital buying property that used to contain homes and the relatively low socio-economic profile of the neighborhood, the number of students in the school continued to fall. There was nothing wrong with the school or its faculty, at least when we were there, but demographics were killing the school. They accepted a large number of voucher students, many of whom did not fit the prior racial/ethnic profile of the school and as a result, lost most of their prior [tuition paying] students.
When the voucher students took the state tests, as a group they did not perform well (huge surprise, putting a crucifix in the room and adding religion to the curriculum doesn't magically solve these students' problems). Because of poor performance, the state did not allow the school to accept new voucher students. As they were unable to attract tuition-paying students and were unable to balance the budget with the voucher students, the school closed.
Another nearby school that accepted a lot of voucher students was an old-money parish in a neighborhood that is now mostly low to lower middle class. My understanding (though I have no first-hand knowledge) is that the parish has money (some of the "old money" families travel to this church despite living in other parishes) and that pastor is strongly supportive of the school and provides scholarships to parish children who cannot afford Catholic school. Most of the tuition-paying families have left that school as well, claiming that the voucher students were well behind their kids and were dragging the school down. That school remains open, but if it was a public school it would have been "F" rated for the 2014-2015 school year.
My daughter's school takes a few voucher students per grade. I haven't heard too much about people pulling their kids from the school due to voucher students, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. Our student body is clearly diverse and I don't know if that diversity has caused some neighborhood parents to look at other schools.
So, what do I think of the voucher program? Honestly, I don't know. Philosophically, I like the idea of parents controlling where their children go to school, and vouchers offer parents a way to get their kids out of schools they don't like. On the other hand, despite the Archdiocese's support for vouchers, the schools have not been eager to take them. I know of one school that has real enrollment problems that does not take those kids. They want to be able to screen the kids and keep the kids with real problems out of their school and I think that is the antithesis of "Catholic". I believe our community would be stronger with good public schools used by the majority of the people in the community, rather than schools that are seen as a last resort for people who cannot afford private schools or kids who can't make it in Catholic school. I'm disappointed that the archbishop has not put more pressure on parish elementary schools to accept vouchers.
While I am sure there are public (and private) school with incompetent administrators and terrible teachers, most "failing" schools are failing because they are filled with poor children, not because the adults running the schools are doing a bad job. The question I have is whether poor children, as a group, do better when they are in schools primarily populated with middle and upper class kids, or whether they do better in schools with other kids like themselves. If they do better in schools with upper and middle class kids, then we need to figure out ways to move poor kids into middle class schools without scaring off the middle class parents. If they do better in schools with other poor kids, then let's add resources to those schools and give the kids the help they need.