The following post was written by a teacher in Louisiana who is a former journalist. Private schools that accept vouchers can score an F with no accountability. Students may enroll in a private school that is far lower-performing than their own public school, and the private school gets $8,000 of public money:

Academically Unacceptable? Not If It’s A Private School.

Nobody wants a doctor who scored an F in medical school. Nobody wants a plumber who scored an F in training courses.

Conventional wisdom holds that nobody wants her kid to attend a school that scores an F.

But what about a private school that scores an F? According to the state of Louisiana, private schools that score an F are A-OK.

If there was any question of whether Louisiana’s much-publicized school voucher program is an effort by State Superintendent John White and the rest of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration to overtly favor private schools over public schools, the recently released “accountability” requirements for private schools in the voucher program should clear up any doubts. The requirements trumpet “a common standard for student performance across the system of traditional public, charter public, and nonpublic schools,” yet the standards for private schools receiving vouchers are far lower than those for public schools–so low that public schools meeting those standards are considered failures.

Louisiana evaluates its public schools using a 150-point scale, which is then converted into letter grades of A, B, C, D and F, based on students’ scores on standardized tests, as well as measures such as attendance and graduation rates. If a public school scores below a B on the accountability index, students from that school whose household income does not exceed 250 percent of poverty level can apply for vouchers.

Despite White’s own assertions about the importance of accountability to the voucher program, he has chosen not to hold voucher schools to the same standards. Private schools receiving vouchers will be able to continue receiving tax money previously earmarked for public schools–more than $8,000 per pupil–while scoring in the F range.

Yes, that’s right, an F. Private schools can score an F and continue receiving public funding.

Specifically, private schools receiving vouchers, whose voucher students will take the same standardized tests as public-school students, will be required to score only a 50on the scholarship cohort index–which the documentation states will be “substantially similar” to the public-school scoring matrix–in order to be eligible to receive more voucher students, and the money that comes with them. Judging by the public-school matrix, such a score places a school squarely in the F category. In fact, with just 60 schools out of 650 in Louisiana scoring below a 51 in the most recent round of grading, such a score would place a school in the ninth percentile of all tested schools. A similar score in a public school would lead the state to deem that school academically unacceptable and would render its students eligible for vouchers.

Given the emphasis that Louisiana officials place on test scores as incontrovertible measures of school (and teacher) quality, it is fair to ask under what logic one ninth-percentile school is considered superior to another ninth-percentile school, simply because one is private and the other public. That question is unlikely to be answered anytime soon, as is the question of how schools were chosen to receive vouchers in the first place; White and the Jindal administration have refused to release the records of the voucher-program deliberations.

Indeed, many people are beginning to wonder whether the state used any criteria at all, as stories of legal troublesschools without teachers and self-proclaimed prophetsemerge among the institutions chosen to receive vouchers, to say nothing of the overtly religious agendas of the program’s legislative supporters or the disturbing claims found in textbooks used by some voucher schools.

White has previously proven sensitive to bad press over vouchers, but apparently he is not sensitive enough to the state’s citizens to give them the clarification they deserve. He did announce earlier this week that the state would be tightening the rules for voucher applicants because, according to the Times-Picayune, “this process now has greater importance.” White apparently did not elaborate on why he did not find the process greatly important to begin with.

Besides demonstrating the state’s prioritization of funding private schools over funding public ones–a prioritization that may be unconstitutional–Louisiana’s differing standards for public and private schools raise another interesting question: What do test scores really mean, and what do they really mean to policymakers? The “school accountability” and “school reform” movements–both of which have gained significant ground in Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina seven years ago–take for granted the fact that standardized tests are the best way to measure learning and to hold schools accountable. Louisiana’s low test-score standards for private schools, however, trumpeted concurrently with calls for improved education, complicate the narrative. Could White, Jindal and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education possibly believe that factors other than test scores can be indicators of student learning? Or do they believe that private schools are just inherently better, no matter what the test scores say?

One thing’s for sure–when it comes to evaluating White’s own accountability, Louisiana’s leaders are apparently not that eager to find out whether the superintendent scores an A, a B, a C, a D or an F. The state just postponed his first performance review.

 

Elizabeth Walters teaches in southeast Louisiana.