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Louisiana's Voucher Standards Called Into Question

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Where every public school in Louisiana is subjected to a standardized slate of testing, the voucher students -- who will bring an average of $8,000 in tuition from "failing" public schools to many that are affiliated with religious denominations -- will only need to face testing if their new school has taken an average of 10 students per grade, or if the schools have accepted at least 40 voucher students into the grades testing.

The students awarded the state's vouchers, as of now nearly 7,000 students in number, will not be subjected to the standardized testing that the state's public schools undergo. Instead, they will have to take the Scholarship Cohort Index, a 150-point exam that is similar to the exams the public students take. Unlike in the public schools, however, the tests' scores will not prevent a student from moving to the next grade.

Still, if the students average lower than a score of 50 in their second year, their new school will not be allowed to take on any more voucher students -- though the students will be allowed to remain, and the taxpayer money will still be funneled to the schools.

But these standards, according to White, apply to only 25 percent of the schools receiving voucher students. The remaining 75 percent will still be required to take the tests, but they will only be forced to post the results publicly.

White also inserted a clause that would allow the waiver of any punishments if "the school has improved by more than 15 points on the [SCI] over the last four school years." That is, if a school has gone from, say, 15 to 30 on the SCI over the first four years -- remaining well-beneath the minimum threshold -- it would not only retain its current voucher students, it could recruit new ones.

"The whole thing is a sham," Les Landon, the PR Director with the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, told TPM. "The thing that sticks out is that the superintendent has given himself authority to waive accountability rules that they've established, so what does one do?"

Landon said the standards would not affect the ongoing legislation to challenge the voucher system's constitutionality: "There's not enough lipstick they can put on the pig to make it conform with the state constitution, so any of the rules that they adopt mean nothing if the law is unconstitutional."

Opponents say the greatest weakness in the standards is not that 75 percent of the schools accepting voucher students aren't subjected to any penalties, or that many of the schools in that 75-percent umbrella teach an amalgamation of Christianist creationism and anti-scientific methods -- including rebuts to evolutionist theories and proof that the Loch Ness Monster still exists.

Rather, they say, the big problem lies in the fact that the students may be transferring, on the taxpayers' dime, to a school that will score worse than the one from which they left. That is, a student can leave a public school if it scores a "C" or below on state standardized testing -- but if the new private school scores the minimum of 50, the equivalent of a D-minus, it could still recruit new voucher students.

"There are still 19 schools that we know about that are blatantly teaching creationism ... [and] we're funding them with state money," Zack Kopplin, who monitors Gov. Bobby Jindal's education reforms, told TPM. "White says he's waiting on state testing and things like that, and that's absolutely absurd. We know that the these schools don't meet the public schools standards that they're supposed to be better than."

Penny Dastugue, president of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said the new standards "represent a right balance between respecting the autonomy of these schools while ... putting in place accountability for the schools in terms of consequences if students don't perform well." However, a report by the independent Bureau of Government Research differed, writing, "Short of no accountability standards at all, it is difficult to imagine a lower standard of performance than what the proposed system offers. Yet the proposal also allows waivers in some circumstances."

Carolyn Hill, one of the members of the two BESE members who voted against the standards, agreed with the BGR. Going off the creationist-based education the state will now subsidize for hundreds of students, Hill saw an apt analogy: that the vote was the equivalent of Adam and Eve first eating the forbidden fruit, and that, as a result, "evil is going to arise."