Audit: Voucher program lacks oversight
Gov. Bobby Jindal
BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana’s Department of Education isn’t properly monitoring the state’s voucher program to make sure students are placed in private schools that demonstrate student achievement and success, according to an audit released Monday.
Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s office released its first performance review of the statewide program, which was pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal as a way to offer better educational opportunities to students in poor-performing public schools.
The audit says the education department doesn’t have checks and balances in place to confirm the private schools that receive public tax dollars offer an “academically acceptable” education or have the space, equipment and staff to teach the voucher students they receive.
“Without formal criteria for evaluating both the academic and physical capacity of a school, LDOE cannot determine whether participating schools can effectively serve the number of scholarship students they request,” the review says. “Such criteria will become even more important in the future should the program continue to expand.”
The Department of Education defended its voucher oversight, saying it has strong protections and offering no suggestions that it would enact the tougher regulations sought by the auditor’s office.
“The Louisiana Scholarship Program leads the nation in rigorous accountability standards. We are committed to enforcing these accountability measures to ensure the Scholarship Program provides high-quality options for Louisiana’s families,” the department said in a written response signed by Superintendent of Education John White.
The voucher program began in 2008 in New Orleans. Lawmakers agreed to Jindal’s request to expand it statewide in 2012.
Taxpayer-financed tuition through the program is available to students from low- to moderate-income families who otherwise would attend public schools graded C, D or F in the state’s rating system.
The program, estimated by the education department to cost $36 million this year, has more than 6,700 students across 126 schools.
Some private schools heavily rely on voucher students.
In 18 schools last year, voucher students made up more than half of the enrollment. In New Orleans, 87 percent of the students at Good Shepherd Nativity Mission School received vouchers last year, according to the audit.
Critics have raised concerns about the quality of some of the private schools taking voucher students, and the incomplete test results that have been released showed mixed results about performance.
Purpera’s office suggested the education department should develop stricter procedures for removing poor-performing schools.
Current regulations say the education department can oust a school from the program or refuse to allow it to accept new voucher students if it has “demonstrated gross or persistent lack of basic academic competence,” without defining specific criteria.
Seven schools weren’t allowed to enroll new students this year because of poor student performance. Another school was kicked out.
Purpera’s office says the education department should spell out criteria that could get a school removed, saying similar benchmarks are in place to judge public schools and charter schools.
“Specific criteria would help LDOE ensure it is holding schools accountable for their performance and treating schools consistently,” the audit says.
The education department disagreed, saying it needs flexibility in administering the program.