The LABI Report: Are vouchers, accountability incompatible?

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 30, 2002


Newspaper reports indicate the public school establishment and supporters of education vouchers are already lining up to do battle in the 2003 Louisiana Legislative Session.

Perhaps it is nave to ask, but one logical question might be: “Why?”

A recent 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court held that school voucher programs, which allow parents to use public funds to send their children to private or parochial schools, do not violate the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state provisions.

That ruling has closed the door on one of the arguments voucher opponents have used to defeat vouchers: their alleged unconstitutionality. Voucher plans have been proposed before in Louisiana but have not made much headway.

A spokesman for the Louisiana Catholic Conference – one of the strongest supporters of vouchers in the Bayou State – responded “Absolutely!” when asked if the conference would be pushing voucher legislation in the session next year.

On the other side of the barricades are the public school forces. State Superintendent of Education, Cecil Picard, sounded the call to arms at a recent meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“We are going to have a game plan. We are going to be prepared,” he told BESE members, regarding the prospect of voucher bills being filed at the Legislature. Picard added: “We have a plan that is working,” a reference to the state’s K-12 accountability program that has received praise in education circles.

But, are vouchers a real and present danger to the progress that has been made in holding schools, students, and school districts more accountable for education advancement? Picard and his “allies” would say yes.

But that is not necessarily so. Many of the students in some schools, primarily in major urban areas, are not coming close to achieving the mandatory scores necessary to advance from the fourth and eighth grades, or graduate from high school.

Cecil Picard, BESE and the local districts “in charge” of those failed schools will be hard pressed to turn them around. As long as students continue to be sent to those institutions, it is tantamount to giving them an academic death sentence.

Consider for a moment the possibility of using vouchers in conjunction with, not opposition to, the K-12 public school accountability program. The accountability model already has strong punitive provisions for schools that continually fail to properly educate their student populations.

In the limited instances where public schools simply cannot or will not work properly, parents of the affected students could be given vouchers to go to a public or parochial school they believe will properly educate their child.

Vouchers would then be a limited but viable complement to the accountability plan.

Because many in the public school establishment have such an unnatural fear of vouchers, they would engage in knee-jerk opposition to this proposal.

Why? If the opponents fear that vouchers might work in such a setting and thus lead to more demand for them, that does not speak well for their confidence in their ability to make a greater degree of improvement in most public schools.

By the same token, many voucher supporters probably would not support such a limited use of vouchers and would demand a more universal application of them – a strategy that will likely not be successful in the face of strong opposition from the education unions.

While the extremists argue, those who are genuinely concerned about getting students out of failed schools ought to begin working together to give vouchers the strongest test they could receive while concurrently strengthening the K-12 accountability program.

It may not be as newsworthy as fighting, but it just may give some academically doomed kids a chance.

DAN JUNEAU is the president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.