The Cost of Choice: As New Orleans’ Catholic school enrollment fell, state vouchers came to the rescue

Archdiocese of New Orleans believes their program ‘changes trajectory of lives’

The Cost of Choice: As New Orleans’ Catholic school enrollment fell, state vouchers came to the resc

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The Archdiocese of New Orleans has been dealing with an enrollment number that has been on the decline. The school system peaked with a population of approximately 60,000 in the 1960′s and is at a total nearly half that in 2019.

One way to help ease the decline in the school system came with the creation of the voucher system following Hurricane Katrina. In the years that followed, the Louisiana Scholarship voucher system was started in New Orleans with some students receiving state money to enter the Catholic school system.

The largest participant in the Louisiana Scholarship Program is the New Orleans Archdiocese, home to 3,700 scholarship students, has more than half of the total students in the program.

Graphic by: Emma Scott, nola.com | The Times-Picayune
Graphic by: Emma Scott, nola.com | The Times-Picayune

According to records from the Louisiana Department of Education reviewed by FOX 8 News, nola.com | The Times-Picayune and WWNO in partnership with Reveal | The Center for Investigative Reporting, 17 schools with the Archdiocese of New Orleans have a scholarship enrollment above fifty percent in the latest school year. State records show every student at St. Benedict the Moor is on scholarship. Resurrection of Our Lord and St. Leo the Great have 94 percent scholarship enrollment.

Archdiocese Superintendent Dr. RaeNell Houston said being a part of the scholarship helps extend their outreach.

“When we started, we saw it as an opportunity to expand our mission and to be able to serve communities that we would not normally serve,” Houston said. “For schools that are predominantly scholarship, I guess you could say that [the scholarship program allows them to keep schools open], but that was never the intention of involvement in the program.”

Dr. RaeNell Houston, Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Dr. RaeNell Houston, Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. (Source: Jon Turnipseed, WVUE-TV)

The Archdiocese said most of their scholarship students, which make up approximately ten percent of their school system, are not Catholic.

“Our church teaches parents are the first and primary educators of children, therefore we support parental choice,” Dr. Houston said. “For some parents that’s public school. For some parents, that’s Catholic school, for some families that’s other non-public schools.”

This year, the state sanctioned seven Archdiocese of New Orleans schools for poor scores. Those scores are mostly based on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program standardized test which students receiving scholarships must take along with children that attend public schools.

Voucher proponents, including the Archdiocese said public schools have an advantage with the test because they design their curriculum for the LEAP test.

“We do not teach for the LEAP test, we teach them for many things and we assess in many ways,” Dr. Houston said. “The LEAP and end of course exams are one piece of the assessment puzzle for us.”

However, public school leaders said it is just not true that they focus on teaching to a test.

Woody Koppel, Orleans Parish School Board Member for District 6
Woody Koppel, Orleans Parish School Board Member for District 6 (Source: Andy Miller, WVUE-TV)

“You’re not getting the answers,” Woody Koppel, Orleans Parish School Board Member, said. “How could you test cram 10,000 vocabulary words? That’s just ridiculous to think somebody could do that, much less know what’s exactly on the test.”

The LEAP instead tests to make sure students reach grade-appropriate standards. For example, in the third grade, students must be able to multiply and divide within 100. So the LEAP test might ask them to multiply 8 x 5 – if the student answers ‘40’ – it’s correct.

“At the end of the day it’s learning the 1+1 it’s not some standardized vocabulary that we’re studying or cramming for,” Koppel said.

We found Archdiocese of New Orleans schools requiring mandatory tutoring for the LEAP test. One parent e-mailed us to say how her schools offers special programs for the test to help her child.

Students can go to a school that accepts scholarships if they are entering Kindergarten or if their public school has a grade of ‘C’, ‘D’ or ‘F’ with the state.

“Often times what that means is a student is coming in two to three grade levels below and we are trying to close that gap and we have a very short window to do it,” Dr. Houston said.

In order to judge how well schools close the gap, the Louisiana Department of Education also measures student progress, which shows how much students improve from one year to the next.

The state average of student progress is 46 percent. Our of the twenty-eight Archdiocese of New Orleans schools in the Louisiana Scholarship Program. Ascension of Our Lord in LaPlace is the top archdiocese school at 54 percent. The worst growth scored school in the Archdiocese system – Our Lady of Prompt Succor in St. Bernard Parish and Holy Rosary High School in New Orleans – both scoring below 20 percent.

Voucher proponents point to video messages telling the stories of parents and children who are happier at voucher schools. In one video, a family from an Archdiocese school, the parent said “I was so happy the program came along… Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to afford to send him to no Catholic school.”

One viewer e-mailed us about St. Joan of Arc School writing: “More like family to us. Great people skills. Most of their teachers are certified. Principal, hands on with staff and students.”

“I truly believe in many cases we are changing the trajectory of lives"
Dr. RaeNell Houston, Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans

“There are children and families that have been positively influenced by their being a part of their school community,” Dr. RaeNell Houston said.

Last year, the Louisiana Scholarship Program directed $19 Million to Archdiocese of New Orleans schools, to cover tuition payments for thousands of students. Those students, the Archdiocese says are better off with a private education.

“When you talk to families and children who tell you their stories and their narrative about why the program matters to them, how it’s changed their life or their family’s lives, how it means literally the difference between life and death for some children, that makes it all worth it,” Dr. Houston said.

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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