Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform agenda could be coming to a head in the Louisiana State Senate this week where the vote is expected to be close on some key bills. Jindal has proposed converting the New Orleans voucher program into a statewide option, expand the number of charter schools, and interlink tenure with student and teacher performance. The governor has encountered stiff opposition from the state’s two teachers unions—the Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. Jindal is also now the target of a recall effort initiated by individual teachers whom the unions have not yet formally embraced.
But unlike Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker is now under siege after taking on the public sector, Louisiana is a right to work state where business interests are on more of an even keel with the power of organized labor. If Jindal is successful, his reforms could reverberate across state lines.
Under the legislation enacted in 2008, the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence (SSEE) program provides low-income families in Orleans Parish with the option to select a public or private school. Over 1,800 students in grades K-6 have received scholarships in the current 2011-2012 school year.
To be eligible, household income cannot exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, which would be $55,875 for a family of four in 2011. Moreover, the student must have attended an “F” rated public school the previous year, or be entering kindergarten. The Louisiana Department of Education has published a list of the schools participating in the Orleans Parish program.
Sen. Conrad Appel, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, cautions against thinking the voucher proposal will initially impact a substantial number of students. But he is hopeful the program can grow over time as more seats become available.
“When you compare the voucher proposal with the legislation that could be used to open more charter schools, the modifications to teacher accountability, and the [re-defined] relationship between school boards, superintendents and principals, we are talking about a very small change,” Appel said. “I think the voucher concept is very valid, and it does create opportunities for certain families, but in practice what we are talking about is not as far reaching as the other proposals that are part of the education reform package.”
Under Sen. Appel’s bill (SB 597), any Louisiana student enrolled in a school with a C grade or lower would be eligible to apply for a voucher. That student must also be part of a household with an income that does exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty rate. This means about 380,000 students would be eligible to apply, according to state figures.
Catholic school officials have concluded that about 2,000 additional seats could be opened up across the state if the voucher legislation is passed.
The Black Alliance for Educational Opportunity (BAEO) conducted a survey by direct mail this past December that showed over 90 percent of parents with scholarship students were pleased with their child’s school and their academic progress. The Pelican Institute has also released a study that shows Louisiana students stand to benefit from school vouchers and other choice initiatives.