The Cost of Choice: Lax application process, holes in transparency in state scholarship program

Schools notify intent, do not apply, to enter scholarship program

The Cost of Choice: Lax application process, holes in transparency in state scholarship program
Carlie Care Kids in Terrytown is a preschool and preparing to accept kindergarten students next year under the Louisiana Scholarship Program.
Carlie Care Kids in Terrytown is a preschool and preparing to accept kindergarten students next year under the Louisiana Scholarship Program. (Source: WVUE-TV)

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A duplex in Terrytown is home to a preschool but will soon accept kindergarten and first grade students under the Louisiana Scholarship Program.

The school, Carlie Care Kids, calls itself a for-profit school and advertises on the building “free kindergarten.”

The application for the Louisiana Scholarship Program is thin, just sixteen pages. Comparing that to a public school’s application to be a charter, Arise Academy’s application to the Louisiana Department of Education reads more like a novel, of 174 pages.

“This is abhorrent,” Andre Perry, who once led a charter network in New Orleans, said. “You can’t tell me a school vetted properly with this amount of pages.”

Perry said that the amount of paperwork required for a charter school application is far more than that of a scholarship school.

“It’s writing a book essentially,” he said.

The charter school application comes with a long list of questions with the state wanting to know the school’s mission, vision, importance to the community, along with specifics on academics, school staffing and culture. The details of the application, to ensure state dollars are going to a good education.

“When I went through the process there were meetings after meetings, research done, conversations with state leaders, this can’t possibly be a way to ensure that kids are served well,” Perry said.

The charter school application has at least forty pages dedicated to the educational program, or curriculum. The section for curriculum in the application for a school in the Louisiana Scholarship Program – about half of a page.

SAMPLE APPLICATION FOR NONPUBLIC SCHOOLS

“Standards should be the same, because our kids are the same,” Perry said.

When Carlie Care Kids submitted its voucher application, they answered the question, “What standards for student learning did the school use to design its curriculum?” in two sentences. They wrote that the school will use common core standards when it implements kindergarten and first grade programs.

Carlie Care Kids did nothing wrong. They simply followed the rules set up to approve schools for the scholarship program. Most of the answers on the scholarship application provide little to no detail.

While state education leaders tour charter schools before their approval, the Louisiana Department of Education said, “site visits are not prescribed in law or policy as a requirement for LSP (Louisiana Scholarship Program) participation.”

“If this is getting them approved compared to what we expect public schools to do -- it’s shameful,” Perry said.

The application by Carlie Care Kids allows them to accept students in the voucher program. According to state records, three more first-time schools also received approval for the next school year. One of those first-time schools is Step by Steps Performing Arts Academy, which has a campus in Vicksburg, Mississippi. They are opening a location in Northeast Louisiana and plan to accept students in the Louisiana Scholarship Program from kindergarten to 12th grade.

In fact, nearly every voucher school that has ever applied to the Louisiana Scholarship Program has been able to accept new students.

State officials tell us this happens because “schools do not apply for the Louisiana Scholarship Program; they notify the LDOE (Louisiana Department of Education) of their intent to participate.” Essentially, as long as a school submits a completed form, they’re automatically eligible to accept students to receive public money.

“If you’re not vetting schools on the front end, you’re really not trying to establish quality on the back end,” Perry said.

When FOX 8, nola.com | The Times-Picayune and WWNO started investigating the quality of voucher schools compared to public schools, it revealed significant holes in transparency.

On the state’s website, you can search for a public school’s grade and see the letter grade. However, when you look up a voucher school, the first page has no grade. You have to click twice to find the number score but not what letter grade is assigned to the school. And the score for at least one school, Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Westwego, was missing. We located the score in other state documents, showing the school received a 46.7, which is an ‘F’.

Our Lady of Prompt Succor is one of twenty-two voucher schools the state sanctioned last year, according to documents from the state. Also among those sanctioned, was St. Peter Claver School in New Orleans.

We asked parents at the school who had no idea their school was sanctioned by the state. According to documents from the Louisiana Department of Education, the state sanctioned the school five of the last seven years.

The state does not post sanction information anywhere on its website. We had to make a public records request in order to get it.

Under the Louisiana Scholarship Program, failing schools can remain open. Those schools with an ‘F’ grade cannot accept new students, but they can keep the scholarship students that are attending the school.

Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport has been sanctioned for five straight years by the state, but still has students in the scholarship program attending their campus.
Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport has been sanctioned for five straight years by the state, but still has students in the scholarship program attending their campus. (Source: KSLA-TV)

At a school like Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, the state sanctioned the school five straight years for having an ‘F’ score. As of last year, the school had 48 scholarship students enrolled.

“To do nothing is to abdicate responsibility for children,” Perry said. “You’re essentially setting up a student for long-term failure.”

Since the state launched the scholarship voucher program, it has not kicked out a single school because of poor academic performance.

“The inability to cancel many of these contracts with some of these private schools over vouchers shows you that something here is woefully wrong,” Perry said.

In addition to notifying the state’s Department of Education of their intent to participate in the scholarship program, schools must receive approval from the State Education Board to be a state-approved non-public school.

At least one school has applied to be in the Louisiana Scholarship Program and denied. Conquering Word Christian Academy in Marrero was kicked out of the program in 2015 after their principal pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $100,000 of FEMA funding. When the school applied to get back into the program, the state denied that request.

The Louisiana Department of Education said they have fixed the problem with Our Lady of Prompt Succor’s score on the website when we made them aware of the issue. The department said the score was missing since March 14 due to a glitch.

St. Peter Claver is closing at the end of this school year due to declining enrollment, budget woes.

The owner of Carlie Care Kids issued a statement regarding our story:

This story is part of a series entitled, The Cost of Choice, a joint investigation by WVUE-TV, NOLA.com | The Times Picayune, WWNO and in partnership with Reveal - The Center for Investigative Reporting.

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