The Cost of Choice: Education board member says voucher system ‘working very well’ but needs improvement

Despite findings of lax accountability, poor performance board member supports scholarship system

The Cost of Choice: Education board member says voucher system ‘working very well’ but needs improve

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - A member of the eleven-person board overseeing educational policies in Louisiana said he supports the scholarship system and says it is ‘working very well’ despite findings to the contrary in our recent Cost of Choice investigation.

The investigation by FOX 8, nola.com | The Times-Picayune and WWNO in partnership with Reveal | The Center for Investigative Reporting found most voucher students attend private schools with a ‘D’ or an ‘F’ grade. The voucher system in Louisiana, called the Louisiana Scholarship program, was created to offer vouchers to private schools for lower income families.

James Garvey, board member for district 1 for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
James Garvey, board member for district 1 for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. (Source: Jon Turnipseed, WVUE-TV)

James Garvey is a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). His district serves portions of Orleans, Jefferson and all of St. Tammany Parishes.

“I think it may have that effect even though it’s not set up to do that,” Garvey said.

Studies over the past four years have concluded, overall, student’s academic performance did not improve in voucher schools. In fact, the studies found being in a voucher program hurt math scores for students.

“There are different studies saying different things,” Garvey said. “From what I was reading today the voucher schools are performing – their progress is better than the average public school.”

Garvey is pointing to one University of Arkansas study that researchers said threw them a “curveball.” For one year, a study showed voucher students’ progress did improve. But an Arkansas researcher said the next year, “We saw a return to significantly lower achievement gains for the voucher students particularly in math.”

The Louisiana Department of Education recently released student progress results for every public and most of the voucher schools. The state measured a student’s progress from year to year – which should indicate how well schools are teaching students over an extended period of time.

In the state’s latest results, students at Lafourche Parish Public Schools made the most progress. If you group the voucher schools across the state as their own district and compare them with all 64 parishes – they’d be ranked second to last – right in front of St. Helena Parish Schools.

“I think the voucher system on average is working very well,” Garvey said.

He said the voucher schools have higher accountability than a public school has in the state. Garvey said that if a voucher school receives an ‘F’ grade, it can’t take new students the following year. But our investigation found BESE requires voucher schools seeking approval to submit little material.

“[The charter school application] goes into a lot of curriculum and the philosophy on how the children are going to be taught,” Garvey said. “We don’t want to tell privately-owned schools what their philosophy and curriculum should to be.”

FOX 8’s Lee Zurik asked Garvey why not require the voucher schools to submit the same information as charter schools. He said they could submit the information if they wanted to but are not required.

“The private school that takes vouchers must be in existence for at least two years and has to have private paying parents, non-voucher parents, who have sustained this school and typically they’ve been in existence for 20-30 years and have a reputation in the community,” Garvey said.

But Garvey’s comments do not line up with findings from The Cost of Choice investigation which found a Terrytown preschool opening an elementary school for the first time next year, accepting voucher students.

And in Vicksburg, Mississippi, a performing arts school plans to open up a school in Northeast Louisiana next school year. The campus was approved by BESE in January after they submitted a several pages of documents.

Garvey was asked how kids should be educated correctly and if BESE should be making sure schools participating in the program are good schools.

“I would say there should be some steps in that direction, yes,” Garvey said. “In 99 percent of the cases we have plenty of experience from these schools.”

He points out that most of the schools in the Louisiana Scholarship Program are well established schools, which is true.

“Each time a public school system opens a new school that BESE ‘let’s them’ open, we don’t know that school is going to be an ‘A’ rated school or an ‘F’ rated school,” Garvey said.

According to BESE policy, the board “shall ensure” nonpublic schools “maintain a curriculum of quality at least equal to that prescribed for similar public schools.”

“All the voucher supporters are looking at tightening these rules up where appropriate,” Garvey said. “No one is saying this is a perfect system.”

Garvey said he does not think voucher supporters are willing to accept ‘F’ rated schools and that some improvement is needed.

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