Education Marketplace Requires Public Trust
By: Nolan Marshall | July 9, 2012
The omnibus legislation referred to as Act 2 or the “Choice Bill” made several changes to how parents and students access public education by allowing state funding to follow them to their school of choice, public or private. This free market approach to opening and closing schools and educating students turns parents into consumers. Because making public education a commodity is what Louisiana’s leaders have decided will produce the best outcomes for families and communities, it is extremely important that the education marketplace is structured in a way that promotes fairness, access, and equity. Creating a consistent set of rules, providing parents with the best information possible to make decisions, and holding schools that receive public dollars accountable is essential to creating a fair and effective market.
Unfortunately, Act 2 applies different rules to traditional public schools, charter schools, and private schools, regarding teacher certification requirements and adherence to the open meetings law. Furthermore, while there is a clear and rigorous process in the law for the way charter schools are authorized, there are only minimal standards established for private schools to participate in the voucher program.
And while traditional direct run schools and charter schools are held to a tough academic accountability system–approved by both the US Department of Education and the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE)–there is currently only a requirement that the State Superintendent “on or before August 1, 2012, develop criteria for participation that includes an accountability system for participating [voucher] students at participating [private] schools.”
This is a short timetable for the State Superintendent to promulgate the kind of careful policies that are needed for the successful launch of such an ambitious program. Act 2 was rushed through the legislature in the first two weeks of the spring session with a sense of urgency. Yet in the three months that have followed we still do not know definitively what schools will be eligible to receive vouchers, how many they are eligible to receive, the process the department of education will use to qualify schools for the program, and how the schools will be held accountable for performance.
In spite of evidence from the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence pilot program in New Orleans that indicates student performance was worse in math, science, and social studies than student performance in failing schools, there is no provision in the law that requires the Department of Education to assign a School Performance Score to participating private schools. Doing so would provide the consumer–parents and students–with the information required to make an informed decision and responsibly use public funds. In response to criticism of the lack of a sensible accountability system for these schools, the Jindal administration has stated repeatedly “parents are the best accountability system we have.”
However, without a consistent measurement to compare public and private schools, parents can only hope and guess when enrolling their students in a private school. Since reformers decided decades ago that hoping and guessing are not sufficient metrics for determining the success of public schools, such an approach should not be the accountability system used to measure private schools that receive publicly funded vouchers either. If education is to be treated as a product, it must be consistently labeled and measured just like food, gasoline, movies, automobiles, medicine and nearly every other product we purchase.
In Indiana, every student at a school that accepts a public voucher is required to take the state’s standardized tests, just like in public schools. Indiana assigns a letter grade to those schools, and holds them accountable. If a school receives three years with a D or F grade, it can no longer take voucher students. The criteria for participation eventually devised by Superintendent White should be compared to standards other states use to hold private schools accountable when they receive vouchers.
The law does not require the State Superintendent to present his accountability plan before the legislature or BESE, however the Cowen Institute strongly urges the Superintendent do so, as a way to provide an opportunity for public feedback prior to August 1. Our economic leaders understand the importance of public trust in the free market and it is just as imperative that the State Superintendent does what he can to build trust in this newly created education market. Having choice without information and accountability is not likely to produce the results we all desire.
If Louisiana wants parent choice to drive a successful marketplace, it should embrace transparency, invite stakeholder input, and insist on accountability for those who use public funds to educate our youth. To do otherwise will invite waste, fraud, and abuse, while undoing trust in many of the necessary education reforms taking place in the state. Without due care in detailing Act 2 procedures, safeguards, and rules, public education can and will be damaged.