Ever since Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed one of the largest school voucher bills in the nation’s history, the backlash has been relentless (Herbert 22). Jindal’s “Louisiana Scholarship Program” has sparked a number of lawsuits — including two lawsuits filed by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers — as well as questions of the program’s constitutionality (Herbert 22). On November 30, 2012, a Baton Rouge area district judge (Judge Tim Kelley) ruled the funding mechanism for Jindal’s program unconstitutional under Louisiana state law (McGaughy). The state immediately appealed, and the Louisiana Supreme Court heard the appeal on March 19, 2013. Today, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that the current method of funding the voucher program is unconstitutional — and I’m not at all surprised.
According to Judge Kelley’s Nov. 30 ruling, Jindal’s program is unconstitutional because it diverts funds from the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) and uses those funds for private schools (McGaughy). The Minimum Foundation Program is the program that calculates per-pupil public education funds and is funded through property and sales taxes. Consequently, as McGaughy points out, “More affluent districts pay higher MFP taxes than areas with lower tax revenues.” Under Jindal’s voucher program, students receiving vouchers are able to “take their MFP funds with them to private and parochial schools” (McGaughy). Many smaller public school systems depend on these MFP funds to survive — without adequate funding, they will not have enough income to operate and may even be forced to shut down completely, possibly leaving some Louisiana communities without a single public school.
There are numerous problems with Jindal’s voucher plan. Not only does the program use taxpayer dollars to fund private schools, violating the separation of church and state, but it also weakens the Louisiana public school system by allowing students to take their MFP funds with them to other schools. The result is essentially the imposition of unfunded mandates — Louisiana public schools lose funding and are expected to maintain the same quality of education as before. Supporters of Jindal’s voucher program contend that it allows parents more control over their child’s education by providing a wider list of school options, arguing for greater “choice,” but the truth is that the program could significantly weaken the Louisiana public school system and by doing so, bring about further inequality.
On paper, Jindal’s voucher plan might sound like a good idea. The educational system in the U.S. is deeply flawed, and this is especially true in Louisiana, where there are a high number of underperforming public schools. Since some schools are of a much higher quality than others, it seems only fair that every student should have the chance to attend a good school and receive a high-quality education. This is where vouchers come into play, promising a solution to the complex problem of educational inequality.
In American Public Policy: Promise and Performance, B. Guy Peters explains vouchers as “checks” for “a specified amount of money that would be applicable only for education,” allowing parents “significantly greater control” over their child’s schooling (365). Vouchers create something like the “market system,” and proponents of vouchers say that they increase competition between schools for the best and brightest students and teachers (365). Lisa Barrow explains this argument well:
[I]f schools must compete for students, then they will take steps to ensure that the educational experiences they offer are valued by parents and students. The primary mechanism proposed by those who favor more competition in elementary and secondary education in the public sector is an education voucher — a coupon redeemable for a maximum dollar amount per child if spent to attend a private school (2).
Patrick J. McEwan from the Department of Economics at Wellesley College uses similar financial language to describe vouchers, calling them “tuition coupons” (McEwan 57). Such descriptions of the voucher program are telling: their emphasis on free markets and on viewing education as a financial transaction are symptoms of the voucher program’s underlying approach, which is to run schools like businesses. While such a system promises greater freedom for parents who want to be able to shop for the best school, it also undermines the best interests of the school system by threatening the funding for public schools.
In “Vouchers, choice, and public policy: An overview,” Romulo A. Chumacero writes that vouchers are designed relying on “decisions by parents, schools, and … government incentives” (116). In order to decide which schools are good quality, parents often take into account “schools’ average scores, accessibility … and the fees charged by schools” (Chumacero 116). Assessing a school based on test scores or accessibility is only logical, but the fact that many parents rate a school’s quality based on its price is problematic. Private schools with high tuition might seem to offer a higher quality of education than “free” public schools; however, educational quality is not easy to measure, and a higher price tag does not necessarily guarantee a higher quality education.
Before the Louisiana Scholarship Program, vouchers in the state of Louisiana only existed in New Orleans or for “students with special needs in eligible districts” (“Louisiana Forges Ahead With Voucher Program”). The idea to use educational vouchers is not a new one. Peters writes that it has been around “for decades,” but “received a large boost from a 1990 book by John Chubb and Terry Moe,” who argued that the fundamental problem with public schools was that school systems were “too bureaucratic to provide good education” (365).
Peters argues that the most fundamental question concerning vouchers is whether or not they would increase stratification in education. “One of the fundamental virtues and goals of American education” — he writes — “has been its attempt to promote social homogeneity and integration” (Peters 365). Since vouchers only cover a portion of tuition, many poorer families hoping to send their child to the best private school might not be able to do so, even if they manage to obtain a voucher.
Jindal’s program has been compared to other voucher programs across the country, and is frequently compared to the voucher program in Indiana. Peter Schrag notes that Indiana’s voucher program is particularly notable in that “unlike earlier voucher programs, which were limited to low-income students, some are now open on a sliding scale to middle-class children” (25). Jindal’s program would also allow middle-class families to participate in the voucher program. Under Jindal’s plan, families can participate if they are at 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, meaning they have a household income of “roughly $57,000 for a family of four” (Cavanagh).
Consequently, Jindal’s voucher program will likely end up “subsidizing middle-class parents without improving the quality of education for the poor, who need that improvement the most” just as Peters feared (Peters 366). Both the Indiana and Louisiana voucher policies are unusual not only because of their loose income-eligibility requirements, but also because they have few designated “caps or restrictions on the number of students who can take part over time” in the program (Cavanagh). An estimated 380,000 Louisiana students are estimated to be eligible for the voucher program — a staggering number, especially considering that there are only a limited number of available spots in the private schools.
If a large enough number of these 380,000 students were to express interest in the voucher program, new private schools might have to open to meet the demand. Robert C. Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation, predicts that out-of-state private schools will be drawn to Louisiana in order to meet this demand (Cavanagh). While the success of the voucher program depends on running schools like an “education marketplace,” Peters points out that in order for such a marketplace to function effectively, consumers must “have access to information about the ‘product’ being produced” — and an influx of new schools would certainly make assessing quality more difficult (Peters 366).
Another huge problem with vouchers is the lack of evidence supporting their effectiveness. For instance, “no studies have examined the longer-run impact of vouchers on outcomes such as graduation rates, college enrollment, and future wages” (Barrow 2). And as McEwan points out, existing experimental evidence on the efficacy of vouchers is sparse, and “mainly explores the impact of vouchers on short-term outcomes like academic achievement” (64). He cites Howell and Peterson’s findings from randomized voucher experiments conducted in New York City; Dayton, Ohio; and Washington, D.C.:
Howell and Peterson (2002) reported the effect of attending a private school. After 3 years, there was a 9.1% gain in composite test scores for African Americans in New York City. There were no statistically significant gains after 3 years for African Americans in Washington, D.C. And, after 2 years in the Dayton experiment, there were positive effects for African Americans—but they were only statistically significant at 10% and disappeared after controlling for student background variables. In general, the positive results for African Americans were driven by the upper-elementary grades, although there is no obvious explanation for this. In sharp contrast to these results, there are no statistically significant effects for other groups (McEwan 65).
One would think that in order to enact successful education reform, it would be wise to use reform methods that have a history of success and have yielded positive results (backed up by research). But the voucher movement proves otherwise. Despite the fact that numerous studies have demonstrated that there are few statistically significant positive effects for students attending private schools using vouchers, voucher programs are being proposed and implemented all across the country and are growing in popularity.
What the voucher program fails to take into account is that paying for public education is not about only paying for the portion that applies to one’s own children. The money each taxpayer spends on education is meant to benefit and educate the entire community. In the future, it won’t matter if your child is well-educated if they are surrounded by a society of poorly-educated citizens. In such a future, the failing education rates will lead to higher rates of crime, higher percentages of incarcerated citizens, higher rates of illiteracy and unemployment, and higher rates of poverty. And poverty — not race — is the biggest factor in the achievement gap. New research by Sean F. Reardon of Stanford “traces the achievement gap between children from high- and low- income families over the last 50 years and finds that it now far exceeds the gap between white and black students” (Ladd).
Short-term solutions such as Bobby Jindal’s voucher program hurt everyone in the long run, because they fail to address the real problems at hand: poverty, parenting, and dismal teacher salaries, just to name a few. Jindal’s plan ignores the crucial correlation between family background and student achievement and fails to adequately address how to genuinely reform the Louisiana public school system. Shuffling select students from the public schools into private and parochial schools does nothing for the students who remain in the failing public schools. Why should education reform benefit only a select number of students, and at the expense of the rest of the students, who are just as deserving of a high-quality education?
Jindal’s voucher program is not only unconstitutional, flying in the face of separation of church and state, but it is also likely to hurt the public school system in Louisiana by taking funding from public schools and luring the brightest students out of the public school system — all while ignoring the input of educators. Just as George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” required all schools “to bring all students to high levels of achievement but took no note of the challenges that disadvantaged students face,” so too does Jindal’s plan attempt to give all students the opportunity to receive a high-quality education, as long as they’re not the same students who are currently enrolled in the public school system (Ladd).
While there are many problems with U.S. public schools that need to be addressed and while the Louisiana public school system is in particular need of reform, the voucher system does little to address the underlying problems that are behind these so-called failing schools — namely, poverty.
The voucher program has encountered vehement opposition from teachers all across the state, who understand the dire impact such a program would likely have on the public education system. As Peters writes, the benefits of a voucher plan “might be as much psychological as real,” since such a program appears to offer parents more choices and an illusion of “control over their children’s education” (367). But the most likely effect of “choice” in any voucher program, he argues, “would be less money for their public schools and most likely, therefore, a poorer-quality education” (Peters 367). And in order to truly close the achievement gap, we’ll have to do a lot better than that. █
Barrow, Lisa, and Cecilia Elena Rouse. “School Vouchers: Recent Findings And Unanswered Questions.” Economic Perspectives 32.3 (2008): 2-16. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
Cavanagh, Sean. “Louisiana GOP Pushes Through Voucher Expansion.” Education Week 31.28 (2012): 15-17. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
Chumacero, Romulo A. and Ricardo D. Paredes. “Vouchers, Choice, And Public Policy: An Overview.” Estudios De Economia 39.2 (2012): 115-122. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
Herbert, Marion. “Backlash Continues In Louisiana Over Vouchers.” District Administration 48.8 (2012): 22. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
Ladd, Helen F. and Edward B. Fiske. “Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?” The New York Times 11 December 2011. NYTimes.com. Web. 10 April 2013.
McEwan, Patrick J. “The Potential Impact Of Vouchers.” Peabody Journal Of Education (0161956X) 79.3 (2004): 57-80. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.
McGaughy, Lauren. “Voucher program heads to state Supreme Court on Tuesday; no immediate ruling expected.” The Times Picayune 19 March 2013. NOLA.com. Web. 10 April 2013.
Peters, B. Guy. American Public Policy: Promise and Performance. 9th ed. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd., 2013. 364-367. Print.
“Louisiana Forges Ahead With Voucher Program.” District Administration 48.6 (2012): 16. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.