What Happened in the Bayou? – by Patrick J. Wolf0
Children carry their books into Alice Harte Elementary charter school in New Orleans. The state’s scholarship program took place in the context of other recent reforms.
“Everything works somewhere; nothing works everywhere,” writes Dylan Wiliam in his book Creating the Schools Our Children Need. To that I would add, everything works at something; nothing works at everything.
Together, the two maxims describe what my research team found when we evaluated the Louisiana Scholarship Program, a statewide school-voucher initiative: the program satisfied some of its goals but fell well short of others, including that of raising student scores on state tests. What follows is a cautionary tale about good intentions and seemingly reasonable decisions resulting in unintended consequences.
The Louisiana Education Scene
Student performance on standardized tests in Louisiana has trailed national averages for decades. In the 2017 8th-grade reading results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Louisiana public schools tied for 42nd in the nation and rated significantly higher than only one jurisdiction, the District of Columbia. Only 25 percent of Louisiana 8th graders scored as proficient or above in reading, similar to the 23 percent rate in 2015 but higher than the abysmal 17 percent rate in 1998. NAEP reading scores for Louisiana 4th and 12th graders have been similarly disappointing, as have their math and science scores.
The private-school sector in the Pelican State is relatively large, for three likely reasons: the traditionally low academic performance of the state’s public schools; Louisiana’s French-Catholic heritage, which has given rise to many parochial schools; and the state’s troubled history of racial segregation. In 2011–12, when this story begins, Louisiana had 394 private schools enrolling 112,645 K–12 students, or nearly 16 percent of Louisiana K–12 students, well above the national private-school average of 11 percent. The private-school sector in Louisiana is a diverse blend of religious and secular schools, with Catholic and evangelical Christian schools dominating the scene. Annual tuition rates in 2013 ranged from $2,000 to $19,660, with a school-level average of about $6,000.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina raged in, devastating the city of New Orleans and environs. The flood damage to more than 300 public schools was so extreme they had to be condemned. Since the storm left many area private schools intact, the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, waiving tuition, initially took in thousands of students whose public schools had been ruined. Several months later, after Hurricane Rita ravaged parts of the Houston area, the federal government established hurricane vouchers for the two storm-damaged regions, temporarily covering the private-school tuitions of educationally displaced children.
In the wake of Katrina, Louisiana lawmakers established two major private-school choice programs. The first was the Elementary and Secondary School Tuition Deduction policy, enacted in 2008. This initiative allows families to deduct on their state income-tax return up to $5,000 per child in private-school educational expenses. The families of more than 106,000 of the 112,000 students attending Louisiana private schools in 2012 claimed the deduction. The second program was the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program, which in 2009 …read more