Secular Right | Reality & Reason

TAG | Louisiana

Dec/12

1

Testing the Flagship

Cross-posted on the Corner:

Kyle Plotkin (Gov Jindal’s communications director) responds to my earlier post on the Guardian’s report on Louisiana’s voucher schools as follows (I am publishing this with his permission):

This is a complete red herring attack from defenders of the status quo who oppose giving parents the opportunity to make choices about their children’s education. They will probably not like the fact that the largest provider of opportunities for scholarship students has tended to be parochial schools. These schools are known to teach all sorts of scandalous things, for example concerning God raising a man from the dead and an important birthday coming up in a few weeks.

We’re competing in a global economy and that’s why we want our students to be exposed to the best science and the best critical thinking skills. We not only need to compete with students in Texas, but we need to compete with students in Japan.

In order to make sure our kids are able to compete with students around the country and the world in math and science, students in the scholarship program are taking the exact same tests as the students in public schools. Starting in 2014 with Louisiana’s move to the Common Core State Standards, those will be nationally standardized assessments. That means that a parent can choose the school with the curriculum and environment that’s right for their child, while still ensuring that they are receiving the baseline content they need to compete.

Furthermore, these results are going to be summarized and publicly available so parents and taxpayers can make comparisons. Schools whose scholarship students do not do well on the exams will not be allowed to continue participating in the program.

Parents are the ultimate accountability in education. Unlike traditional public systems where students are assigned to their school based on zip code, school choice gives parents the power to vote with their feet. That can be public school choice or it can be private school choice; we’ve done both in Louisiana. The parent knows the child better than a bureaucrat in Baton Rouge or Washington, D.C. Across the country, millions of parents don’t have this option and their child is stuck in a failing school unless they can move to another district.

If you look at the results of the students who started in the pilot program in New Orleans, they are outperforming their peers in Math and Science. For instance, the percentage of third graders in the Scholarship Program in New Orleans demonstrating proficiency in Math has increased by 23 points since 2008, compared to a 2 percentage point increase for all Louisiana third graders. Further, the percentage of third graders in the Scholarship Program demonstrating proficiency in Science has increased by 4 points since 2008, compared to a 1 percentage point increase for all Louisiana third graders. This mirrors national results, where no less than 10 gold standard research studies have found that when children choose their school–improving the child’s “match” with their school environment–they are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college.

That’s an encouraging response. It’s also good to read how well the pilot program appears to be working out. That makes it all the more important to ensure that the wider program delivers the sort of academic return the taxpayers who have been drafted into funding it have every right to expect. Success in this respect will be the program’s best defense against future political attack. Testing the schools that take part in this program (including, I note, of math and science) will obviously be a key part in this process, but so will a serious insistence on speedily removing accreditation from those schools that fail to make the grade. .

As to what is taught in these schools, that’ll be a topic to which I’ll revert (I wanted to post Mr. Plotkin’s reply as quickly as possible), I’ll leave the constitutional questions to the experts, but, as a matter of general principle it doesn’t worry me in the slightest that the education available under this program might include a religious element. The question, I suppose, is just how large that element should be, and what it might amount to. The thought that such questions might even be asked will be offensive to some, but taxpayer money never comes without strings, and rightly so. Democratic accountability matters.

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Nov/12

30

Time to Fix the Flagship

Cross-posted on the Corner:

If there’s a policy that deserves to be a winner for the GOP (as well as being a thoroughly good thing in its own right), it is school choice and Bobby Jindal has done well to push it in Louisiana.

But having launched a flagship it’s important to ensure that it does not sink.

The Guardian reports:

[A] court case beginning Wednesday is set to shine light on a controversial policy in [Jindal’s] state which sees government funding given to schools that teach creationism….The case has been brought by a Louisiana teachers’ union and is aimed at a voucher scheme whereby some parents can take their children out of poor state schools and get vouchers to use at private schools.

One of the most controversial aspects of the programme is that some of the schools included on it are conservative Christian organisations that teach creationism in their science classes. When parents use the vouchers at such establishments they are effectively giving state money to teach children lessons that can include alternatives to the theory of evolution or questioning the widely accepted age of the Earth…

“This whole voucher plan was to give parents choices. But it is ignoring the quality of those choices,” said Mary-Patricia Wray, legislative and political director of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.

Now, there’s quite a bit of humbug running through those two sentences (Louisiana’s education scores have historically not been the most impressive), but Jindal has handed his opponents a useful weapon. He needs to take it back.

Stick with the voucher program—expand it wherever possible—but be careful to make sure that the standards of the schools that benefit from it are higher on every measure than those of the traditional public schools they may be replacing. I’m not convinced that taxpayer funding of schools that teach that the Earth is six thousand years old really does the trick, even if such schools are the rare exception rather than the rule.

The governor must plug the hole in his flagship. It’s too important to be allowed to sink.

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Jul/12

9

Don’t Confuse the Children!

Commenter Kevin S. kindly responded to my earlier posting on Bobby Jindal’s voucher program with a link to this Reuters story. It’s worth paying some attention.

An extract:

Louisiana’s plan is by far the broadest. This month, eligible families, including those with incomes nearing $60,000 a year, are submitting applications for vouchers to state-approved private schools.

That list includes some of the most prestigious schools in the state, which offer a rich menu of advanced placement courses, college-style seminars and lush grounds. The top schools, however, have just a handful of slots open. The Dunham School in Baton Rouge, for instance, has said it will accept just four voucher students, all kindergartners. As elsewhere, they will be picked in a lottery.

Far more openings are available at smaller, less prestigious religious schools, including some that are just a few years old and others that have struggled to attract tuition-paying students.

The school willing to accept the most voucher students — 314 — is New Living Word in Ruston, which has a top-ranked basketball team but no library. Students spend most of the day watching TVs in bare-bones classrooms. Each lesson consists of an instructional DVD that intersperses Biblical verses with subjects such chemistry or composition.

At Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake, pastor-turned-principal Marie Carrier hopes to secure extra space to enroll 135 voucher students, though she now has room for just a few dozen. Her first- through eighth-grade students sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace through Christian workbooks, such as a beginning science text that explains “what God made” on each of the six days of creation. They are not exposed to the theory of evolution.

“We try to stay away from all those things that might confuse our children,” Carrier said.

Hmmm…

Allowing vouchers to be used for religious schools doesn’t bother me overmuch, but here’s a part of what I wrote before:

The key is regulation. To secure eligibility for voucher-status, religious schools, and what they teach (not too much mumbo jumbo, please, admission for both sexes, and members of all faiths and of none, and so on), would have to go through a tough vetting both to begin with and, say, annually. And, if the experience in the UK is anything to go by, you’d probably need to vet the vetters too.

I’m not sure that there’s a lot of that going on here:

In Louisiana, Superintendent of Education John White said state officials have at one time or another visited all 120 schools in the voucher program and approved their curricula, including specific texts. He said the state plans more “due diligence” over the summer, including additional site visits to assess capacity.
In general, White said he will leave it to principals to be sure their curriculum covers all subjects kids need and leave it to parents to judge the quality of each private school on the list.

Yes, hmmm.

With the US public education in such expensively bad shape, vouchers are a terrific idea. It would be a shame if Jindal’s (dare I say it) “fundamentalist” belief in the sorting powers of the market were to bring a much-needed tool for educational reform into disrepute.

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Jul/12

7

Whoops!

Former exorcist and current Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has (to quote the Friendly Atheist) “pushed for a voucher program that would allow state funds to be used to pay for religious schools.” The Friendly Atheist is not so keen on the idea (he believes it to be unconstitutional), but I’m inclined to be more relaxed. A little mumbo jumbo is a cheap price to pay for a good education. Religious schools in this country (and elsewhere) have a long record of delivering an education that can be of lower cost and higher quality than that provided for in the state system. And they also have a long and shameful record, not least in corners of the Islamic world, as perpetrators of ignorance and division.

The key is regulation. To secure eligibility for voucher-status, religious schools, and what they teach (not too much mumbo jumbo, please, admission for both sexes, and members of all faiths and of none, and so on), would have to go through a tough vetting both to begin with and, say, annually. And, if the experience in the UK is anything to go by, you’d probably need to vet the vetters too. I don’t know whether Gov. Jindal’s legislation provides for all this or not, but, in any event, it would be unlikely to be enough for one Louisiana (Republican) lawmaker. Valarie Hodges.

Livingston Parish News takes up the story:

WATSON — Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Watson, says she had no idea that Gov. Bobby Jindal’s overhaul of the state’s educational system might mean taxpayer support of Muslim schools.

“I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools,” the District 64 Representative said Monday.

“I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school,” Hodges said…HB976, now signed into law as Act 2, proposed, among other things, a voucher program allowing state educational funds to be used to send students to schools run by religious groups…Hodges, who represents District 64 on the northwest side of the parish, and another freshman lawmaker in the local delegation, Clay Schexnayder from Dist. 81 in the southwest, voted with the House majority in favor of HB976.

The school funding mechanism, however, did not come up for a vote until the end of the session. By then, a Muslim-based school had applied for support through the new voucher system.

During debate over the MFP (Minimum Foundation Program) funding formula, Hodges learned more about the consequences of the educational changes. She voted against the new MFP funding formula; Schexnayder voted for it.

“Unfortunately it will not be limited to the Founders’ religion,” Hodges said.

Oh dear. I’m not necessarily opposed to (mild, constructive, gently patriotic, and minimally superstitious) state religions, but I suspect—well over two centuries into the First Amendment—that the time for that in the US may have passed.

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