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Policy Initiative Spotlight: Louisiana’s Educational Overhaul

by Edward Alden
April 20, 2012

Teacher Darcy McKinnon teaches math to her seventh grade class at Samuel J. Green Charter School in New Orleans February 22, 2006.(Lee Celano/Courtesy Reuters) Teacher Darcy McKinnon teaches math to her seventh grade class at Samuel J. Green Charter School in New Orleans February 22, 2006.(Lee Celano/Courtesy Reuters)

Today’s “Policy Initiative Spotlight” focuses on the sweeping education reforms taking place in the state of Louisiana, which is fast becoming a kind of national laboratory for proponents of choice-based school reforms. Renewing America contributor Steven J. Markovich looks at the initiative, and what’s at stake for the larger debate over school reform.

The greatest long term threat to U.S. economic vitality may be the failure of the K-12 educational system to prepare students to compete in the global economy. While underperforming K-12 schools are a national concern, most control is exercised at the state and local levels.

On April 18, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed legislation into law overhauling Louisiana’s educational system. Prominent aspects include creating a statewide voucher program, empowering superintendents to deploy “merit pay,” and allowing a majority vote of parents to transfer control of poor performing schools to the state, called the “parent trigger.”

The most hotly debated issue is vouchers. The legislation will extend the New Orleans voucher program statewide and raise the income threshold to include more middle class families; families of four earning roughly $57,000 or less should qualify. While 1,800 New Orleans students are attending schools with vouchers, an estimated 380,000 Louisiana students could be eligible, though state leaders expect only a few thousand to apply initially.

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and other proponents argue vouchers improve educational opportunities for children by giving parents the freedom to choose their child’s school and encouraging competition among public and private schools. Parents of voucher students seem to agree; 93 percent said they were satisfied in a survey by the voucher supporting Louisiana Federation for Children.

Not everyone is so sanguine. Andrew Vanacore of The Times-Picayune argues that while parental support is strong, there are not enough data to judge the impact on student performance. He cites mixed results from Louisiana test data, and studies of other voucher programs. Education pundit Diane Ravitch—who participated in Renewing America’s Expert Roundup on Education Reform and U.S. Competitiveness—recently wrote a blog entry on the legislation at EducationWeek, in which she stated that “[Louisiana State Superintendent John White] had no substantive response to my research review showing that charters, vouchers, and merit pay don’t produce better education.”

There is considerable debate on the other measures of the Louisiana legislation. Proponents of merit pay—paying teachers according to performance or marketable skills—argue that it allows schools to reward the best teachers, and to attract people to the teaching field in subject areas such as science where there is greater competition in the general economy.

Washington DC’s merit pay program is touted as an important way to keep excellent young teachers teaching. The major public teacher unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers, generally oppose merit pay in favor of traditional salary schedules. Opponents of merit pay often claim that student test scores—an important component of most merit pay formulas—do not accurately capture student achievement and teacher performance.

The Louisiana legislation also gives parents the power to hand over operation of a failing school to the state controlled Recovery School District (RSD) with a majority vote. Governor Jindal argued for the “parent trigger” by stressing how it empowers parents: “This is about making sure all parents have an opportunity to get a quality education for their children.” Detractors are concerned that charter operators may coax parents into voting for a takeover to create a business opportunity, because most RSD schools become public charters.

The Louisiana experience will be closely watched by the rest of the nation. The enactment of these policies may help provide data to better inform the debates over school choice and is likely to influence the reform efforts of other states.

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