The Louisiana legislature approved Gov. John Bel Edwards’ (D) proposed 14 percent cut to the state’s school voucher program. As the legislature enters a special session to solve a $600 million budget shortfall, pro-voucher advocates are campaigning to reinstate funding to the voucher program.
Edwards’ budget reduced funding for the Louisiana Scholarship Program from $42 million to $36 million. The legislature approved the budget on June 5, 2016, and immediately entered a second, special session to decide how to solve the funding shortfall. They have until June 23 to raise taxes or take other steps to fix the budget.
While lawmakers are working during the special session, the pro-voucher group, Louisiana Federation for Children (LFC), is airing TV and radio ads accusing Edwards of lying about his position on the voucher program. LFC estimates 1,100 students will be put back into the public school system if the funding cut sticks.
The Louisiana Scholarship Program was adopted in 2008 and in the 2015-16 school year, served 7,110 students. Access to the program is limited to low-income families, or those attending C, D, or F-rated schools. Nearly 90 percent of participants are minorities.
‘Not a Surprise’
Ann Duplessis, president of LFC, says Edwards’ voting record has not been friendly to education choice, though his campaign message favored maintaining current programs.
“He said on the campaign trail he was not going to do it, that he would just make sure [the voucher program] was working the way it was intended to be working,” Duplessis said. “It was not a surprise to us. We anticipated there would be movement to restrict or somehow strangle both charter schools and the voucher program.”
Forcing Better Outcomes
Duplessis says communities battling “a deteriorating public education system” is not unique to Louisiana.
“There has been an outcry all over this country about how do we change what’s happening and how to create policies and practices and procedures that begin to force the system to change and begin to force better outcomes for our children all over this country,” Duplessis said.
Duplessis says the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 allowed the state rebuild and improve its education system.
“When Katrina hit, our problems became so pronounced,” Duplessis said. “It allowed us a chance to totally recreate our world. And that recreation was the proliferation of our ability to innovate and allow for new things to happen: the expansion of charter schools, the introduction of vouchers, and subsequently the expansion of the voucher program.”
‘A Tremendously Positive Impact’
Over the last five years, third through eighth grade students in the program have achieved large gains in statewide averages, evidence of a 44 percent reduction in the achievement gap between those students enrolled in the program and their peers statewide.
“When we talk about what impact this particular program has had for the lives of a few thousand of our Louisiana families, it goes to say it has had a tremendously positive impact,” Duplessis said.
“[The governor] is still trying to call this an experiment, saying it’s not benefitting people,” said Duplessis. “We are showing great results and improvement and not only in test scores. Kids have begun thriving because they now fit into the environment that they’re in because of their families’ ability to choose what works best.”
Vouchers More Vulnerable
Kevin Kane, president of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, says voucher programs have traditionally struggled more than other forms of school choice to gain nationwide support.
“It’s worth noting that support for the voucher program has been more tenuous than charter schools,” Kane said. “There is more broadly spread support for choice, but if you look at each issue separately, I’d say vouchers were more vulnerable and receive more criticism politically. Charters receive fairly bipartisan support, [but] vouchers are more vulnerable.”
Duplessis says Edwards’ past attempts to restrict or eliminate the voucher program as well as charter schools have failed to gain support.
“We have overwhelming support in the legislature and we believe we can fend off any serious attacks,” Duplessis said. “We have more than 7,000 families who have been trained and educated and who are not going to let this be taken away from them and that’s not only in New Orleans, but across the state.”
Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.