Monday, October 03, 2016

School Vouchers: A View From (Sort of) the Other Side

Years ago I wrote this post about the state offering vouchers for the poor to attend private schools.  One thing that is different about me since I wrote that post is that I now have a child in Catholic school, and my public school students have graduated.  I thought I'd take another look at the issue.  I'll admit my feelings about vouchers are more mixed now than they were eleven years ago but I think that is as much because I've seen the vouchers in action as it is because I am on the private school side of the fence.

This is the fourth year of Louisiana's state-wide voucher program.  It allows students  who qualify for free or reduced lunches and who

  1. attended a school rated C-F last year or 
  2. were newly assigned to a C-F school
to apply for a voucher to attend a private school.  The schools are allowed to tell the state how many positions they have open in which grades and I think they can exclude kids who have IEPs that call for services the school cannot provide, but other than that, the schools are not allowed to screen the voucher kids before accepting them.

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.


  1. It takes time, a lot of it. Arizona has been doing charter schools for a bit over ten years. Even some of the regular public schools have become chartered. Parents know what to expect. At first they seemed to be all about the children raised in economically depressed households and middle class people who were tired of the BS.
    The state also gave religious schools a $250 tax credit for anyone donating to that school.
    My niece works for a "for profit" school.
    A plethora of options has risen.
    What has happened? It seems the whole state is becoming average. To me, that is a huge win.

    1. The oeverwhelming majority of New Orleans public schools are charters, and not surprisingly the ones that do best are those that have figured out how to limit the number of high-poverty students. A charter opened not far from my daughter's school and took about 40 of our kids. Though its charter said it was aimed at poor kids, that's not who ended up enrolling--and now they have far more applicants than slots. The school has good test scores and a higher socio-economic profile than most public schools.

    2. Humm- it is illegal in Arizona to limit kids from charters.

    3. Some charters are allowed to be selective admission but they have to use a publically availalbe matrix. Those do very well. Some are allowed to give preference to kids in certain neighborhoods--and if the neighborhood is middle class or higher that can be a real draw. The fact that they require you to visit, fill out an application six months in advance and do not provide transportation cuts the bottom from the charter down the street. Some charters in New Orleans have a design of being "intentionally diverse"; they save a certain percent of their open seats for whites (usually about 30%) and are color-blind for the other seats, so they end up with more middle-income students than other schools.

      In New Orleans (the city) there are no assigned public schools. Parents who want to enroll thier kids in public school (government run or charter) or who want a voucher for private schools all fill out a "One-App" listing their schools of preference. A computer matches them. A few charters still don't participate but as their charters need to be renewed they will have to join One-App.


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