The Cost of Choice: Governor to push for changes to Louisiana Scholarship Program

The Cost of Choice: Governor to push for changes to Louisiana Scholarship Program

BATON ROUGE, La. (WVUE) - Governor John Bel Edwards plans on pushing for more changes to the state’s program that allows children at poor-performing public schools to attend certain private schools on a voucher or scholarship.

“It boggles the mind. It doesn’t make sense,” Edwards told FOX 8’s Lee Zurik during an interview in the governor’s office at the Louisiana State Capitol. The governor agreed to the interview after seeing the findings of The Cost of Choice, a joint investigation by WVUE-TV, nola.com | The Times-Picayune and WWNO in partnership with Reveal | The Center for Investigative Reporting.

The joint investigation found private schools were receiving hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars – yet many were doing a poor job at educating former public school students. The goal of the Louisiana Scholarship Program, started by then-Governor Bobby Jindal, was to send kids to better-performing schools.

“Every other dollar we spend at the state we talk about getting a return on investment -- why do we not talk about that when it comes to voucher schools?” Edwards asked.

Students have two ways to get into the Louisiana Scholarship Program – either attend a C, D or F public school, or if they are entering Kindergarten.

“A child could be in Kindergarten could live across the street from an A-rated elementary school but can go to a voucher school that is one of these programs we’re talking about,” Edwards said. “And once you’re in that school you get to maintain your presence there, even though it is clearly an inferior educational institution.”

Last year, only three percent of the students entering the scholarship program for the first time were entering from an F school. The majority of those entering the program last year, sixty percent, entered Kindergarten, which means most of those students starting the program, never went to a ‘D’ or ‘F’ rated public school.

“Even if you believe in choice, I think we should all agree it ought to be a choice that has some quality associated with it,” Edwards said.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D) talks with FOX 8's Lee Zurik during an interview June 4, 2019 in the governor's office.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D) talks with FOX 8's Lee Zurik during an interview June 4, 2019 in the governor's office. (Source: Cody Lillich, WVUE-TV)

In 2019, a Mississippi performing arts school without any educational accreditation submitted a handful of documents to the state and received approval to receive students at a new school in Northeast Louisiana. The governor said that did not make sense.

“A school basically just serves notice that it wants to take a voucher kid and with a few pages of just yes, no answers, they will be approved, without a site visit,” Edwards said. “We’re sending this amount of money -- $40 Million a year – and they don’t even get a site visit by the Department of Education before they are deemed eligible to accept these children. We should do better than that.”

The governor said if he is re-elected in 2019, he will make it a priority to suggest changes to the program in the legislative session. The governor suggested the qualifications into the system as possible changes moving forward.

“The whole premise of the program was to give parents of kids in failing schools a choice. First of all, a ‘C’ school is not a failing school,” Edwards said. “For those Kindergartners who could otherwise attend an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ school, for them to be allowed to go to a voucher school we know very little about, or what we know is unsatisfactory – that ought to be changed.”

For taxpayers in the state, the whole program comes at a cost of millions of dollars each year, the Governor said it is the state’s job to ensure it is set up to provide a quality education as advertised in the program’s creation.

“This was all about giving kids an opportunity to go to a great school, that’s what my predecessor (Jindal) said, well I don’t think anybody contends that these are great schools.”

The two men running against Edwards for governor, Republicans Eddie Rispone and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham are both supporters of school choice.

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