NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The country's top education official is out with criticism of Louisiana's scholarship voucher program that educates nearly 7,000 children annually.
“I would just say that the Louisiana program was not very well conceived,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said at a conference in Baltimore on May 6. “It has encouraged some schools that probably would not have been parents first choices if they’d been given a full range of choices.”
The comments from DeVos caught the attention of many given her background as a voucher supporter and past chair of the American Federation for Children before being nominated as Education Secretary by President Donald Trump in 2016.
The program, which now encompasses approximately 7,000 students annually, was signed into law by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal at a Baton Rouge school in April 2012. The program was lauded by DeVos’ American Federation for Children and other school choice advocates.
Jindal lauded the program as one that would ensure that every Louisiana child would get a great education.
“This is about making sure every little boy, every little girl has the chance to go to a great school,” Jindal said in a rally in Baton Rouge in 2013.
Years after the program started, however, the Louisiana Scholarship Program has not lived up to those words. Our joint investigation found children going from public or charter schools to lower-performing scholarship schools, often with little oversight.
The same year as Jindal’s 2013 speech, our analysis of state education data showed sixty percent of the schools graded in the scholarship system received a failing score. Last school year, ninety-two percent of the schools graded in the scholarship system received a D or F grade. No school in the system received an A or B grade.
Five studies over the past four years concluded overall students’ academic performance did not improve in voucher schools. The studies also found being in a voucher program hurt a student’s math scores.
Andre Perry has been a Louisiana education activist and is now a fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution, focusing on race and education. Perry said the system in Louisiana was not set up to help students.
“Bobby Jindal did not set up the Louisiana Scholarship Program for success,” Perry, who worked on education transition for Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and then-New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “It set it up for low performing schools to get subsidized and to stay open.”
In Jefferson Parish, Our Lady of Prompt Succor has a failing score. State records showed eighty-four percent of the students enrolled at the school are on a voucher, meaning most students at this private school are funded with public money.
“The voucher program is helping the schools maintain enrollment they probably would not have without that subsidy,” Perry said.
Data collected from the Louisiana Department of Education showed sixty-seven percent of the children in the scholarship program attend schools where the majority of students receive vouchers. The program has essentially created a privately-run, publicly-subsidized school system.
In Orleans Parish, St. Alphonsus, St. Benedict the Moor and St. Leo the Great all have more than a ninety percent voucher enrollment.
“(Without the subsidy from the state) the schools would shut down without question,” Perry said.
For some schools, our research found the voucher program brings in millions in public money to private schools. St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans receives $2.5 Million a year, Resurrection of Our Lord in New Orleans East receives $2.1 Million and Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Jefferson Parish receives nearly $1.7 Million per year.
Former State Senator Ann Duplessis sponsored the bill to create the Louisiana Scholarship Program. She now serves as president of the pro-voucher, Louisiana Federation for Children. She said voucher schools are at a disadvantage because the state bases their grades on the scholarship student’s performance on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, or LEAP test. All students in the scholarship system must take the LEAP test.
“In many cases traditional public schools gear their day to helping kids pass the test,” Duplessis said. “The voucher schools have curriculum and their day isn’t filled with -- is this going to help them?”
Our investigation found several examples of voucher schools providing tutoring for students in advance of the LEAP test.
Orleans Parish school leaders say the LEAP tests have changed so much and are more rigorous and complicated that no curriculum can test-prep students.
“The testing is one of many tools to evaluate whether or not your teaching methods are successful,” Woody Koppel, Orleans Parish School Board Member, said. He said if schools are not testing well they should “rethink how you’re teaching the kids those individual concepts.”
Children from poor families can jump to a voucher school if they attend a C, D or F public school or if they’re entering Kindergarten. Our investigation found many instances of students moving to a school with a lower-performing grade. The grades for scholarship schools are based only on the scholarship student’s scores.
In 2017, State records show seven children left KIPP:Believe, a New Orleans charter school, that received a "C" grade by the state. The next school year, all seven students enrolled at St. Joan of Arc, a New Orleans Catholic school, that received a "D" grade by the state.
“If you’re going to take on a voucher program, the private options must be better,” Andre Perry said.
“Even in that 'C' school, if you’re going to say this isn’t working for my child, I should have the opportunity to move them,” Ann Duplessis said.
Duplessis said parents should be given the choice to move to private schools because she believes most New Orleans public schools have a D or an F grade. However, our analysis of state public school records show New Orleans public and charter schools are not failing, sixty-two percent have either an A, B or C. Thirty-eight percent of New Orleans public schools had a D or F, according to state data.
“Every parent knows what their school is rated,” Duplessis said. “I think parents will have a good idea, absolutely.”
We went to five different schools in the New Orleans area to ask parents waiting to pick up their children if they knew how their school performed -- none of the parents we asked knew what their school was graded. Parents also told us they did not know how to find that information.
The grades for voucher schools are only based on scholarship enrollment. However, twenty-five percent of the voucher students in the system attend schools that receive no grade. The ‘no grade’ is because the Louisiana Department of Education does not assign grades to schools that have ten or fewer voucher students in a grade. This lack of a grade leaves no way of knowing how children at these schools are performing and no way of holding the campuses accountable.
“Kids aren’t just slipping through the cracks because of rules, they’re actually falling into dangerous educational situations,” Perry said. "We’re setting many school kids up for failure long-term.
“The voucher schools have not proven over a significant period of time -- and it’s not just Louisiana, it’s across the country -- that they can substantitvely move black and brown children into a higher academic category.”
Voucher proponents cite a yearly survey that included approximately twenty percent of the scholarship families. In the latest study, ninety percent gave the program a high mark.
“The families are happy,” Ann Duplessis said. “The families think that it’s benefiting their children. I don’t know how else you can define success.”
Some families we talked to at campuses in New Orleans praised more than just academics in their support of the school.
“She knows everyone,” one parent told Lee Zurik. “She was in a school before and had behavioral problem and came here and that got solved.”
But as we checked the facts that launched this program, the political rhetoric continued to be off the mark.
Speaking to the American Federation for Children’s Policy Summit in 2014, then-Gov. Jindal said the program would save Louisiana $10 Million for taxpayers. An analysis of data from the Louisiana Department of Education showed the true cost of choice, revealing the state is paying nearly $10 Million more every year to educate children at private schools.
We tried numerous times to get a comment or an interview with State Superintendent of Schools John White but were told he did not want to comment on this story. We also tried reaching out to former Governor Bobby Jindal for comment but did not hear back for this story.
As a part of the group investigation, WVUE-TV, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, WWNO and Reveal - The Center for Investigative Reporting compiled state education data into a database that can be searched and filtered by parish.