New Orleans Experiments with Citywide Voucher Program

Published September 1, 2008

It took an act of God, converted legislators, and a U-Haul at the governor’s mansion to bring meaningful school choice to New Orleans.

As a result, the city’s new $10 million needs-based voucher program may bring back some families who fled the city when Hurricane Katrina arrived three years ago.

“It gives people who are considering returning an incentive to come back,” said Yashica Smith, a single mother of four children–one of the hundreds of parents who applied for a voucher like the one allowing her six-year-old son, Taj, to attend first grade in private school this year.

It also gives lower-income minority parents like Smith a chance to provide a better education for their children.

“African-American parents in this city aren’t usually able to afford a private school for their children,” Smith said. “When they have an opportunity like this, I’m pretty sure they’re going to jump on it.”

Long Lines

Jump they did. State Rep. Austin Badon (D-New Orleans), who sponsored the bill establishing the new voucher program, said more than 600 parents had shown up by the third day of the week-long application period in early July. The Times-Picayune reported 200 parents waited in line before the doors opened at Dryades YMCA for the chance to send their children to private or religious schools.

Approved solidly by Louisiana’s House (62-34) and Senate (25-12), the legislation creates $6,300 vouchers for 1,500 children from low-income homes to enroll in a private school this year. Children attending kindergarten through third grade who come from households with incomes not exceeding 250 percent of federal poverty guidelines (not more than $53,000 for a family of four, for example) may apply.

While only students who attended a Recovery School District school during the 2007-08 academic year can receive scholarships, private schools outside that district have offered to take students for the 2008-09 year.

Big Impact

The voucher program could mean significant growth for parochial schools.

Kevin Wingate, assistant principal at the Upperroom Bible Church Pre-School and Academy, expects the program to double his school’s student body, which consists entirely of black and other minority students. Wingate says the vouchers will give more children access to a better education.

“Our public school system really is not meeting the needs of the general population,” Wingate said. “A lot of children are in failing schools because their parents simply cannot afford to send them to a better school.”

Smith said the voucher program will also help public schools, especially overcrowded ones.

“With parents having a choice, the student-teacher ratio will decrease,” Smith said. “Teachers will be able to spend more one-on-one time with children.”

Safer Schools

The program is popular with New Orleans parents who worry about their children’s safety in the public schools, Smith said.

“Behavioral-wise, things are different, too,” Smith said. “Private schools are more strict, and even if you have children return to public schools after having been in those private schools, the schools will be getting a model student–not a discipline problem–most of the time.”

Sea Change

For decades, the New Orleans public school system was among the worst-performing in the nation. According to the Louisiana Department of Education, 75 percent of New Orleans eighth graders scored “below basic” in reading and two-thirds scored “below basic” in math on the 2004 state assessment.

Between 1998 and 2005, enrollment fell 25 percent as parents showed their disappointment in the district’s abysmal performance by voting with their feet. But when the levees broke during the hurricane, so did the traditional urban approach to education.

Hurricane Katrina was not the only factor in transforming the district from one in which parents had almost no decision-making power to one in which virtually every public school is a charter school, with vouchers now also being made available.

Badon said three decades of poor academic performance, eight different superintendents during the eight years before Katrina, and corruption (including employees caught outright stealing from the district) created a change in the political atmosphere that paved the way for the creation of the nation’s fourth citywide voucher bill.

“We were the butt of jokes; people were numbed by it. We said, ‘We gotta do something different,'” Badon explained. “Certain dynamics contributed to the effort. We got a new governor who was supportive and who was able to find $10 million in the state budget to pay for it.”

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.