Where is state voucher money actually going?

Jul 7, 2013 by

excusesRobert Mann –

Would you pay $6,300 in tuition to send your child to a private school with uncertified teachers, insufficient computers and no proper classrooms, and at which the “teaching” occurred mostly by plopping students in front of televisions to watch lessons on DVDs? Of course you wouldn’t. But the Louisiana Department of Education would.

Those following Gov. Bobby Jindal’s troubled private-school voucher program might recall that the state last year awarded 165 voucher slots to the New Living World School in Ruston. (In a moment of Orwellian inspiration, Jindal and the Legislature dubbed their voucher plan the “Student Scholarships of Education Excellence Program.”)

Despite embarrassing questions last year from legislators and the media about the school’s abysmal instruction, its lack of classroom space and the absence of qualified teachers, state Education Superintendent John White awarded the voucher slots.

Actually, calling this Ruston fly-by-night operation a “school” is like calling beef jerky prime rib. Yet, with full knowledge that the institution was little more than a shell of a school, White and Jindal handed it more than $600,000 of your money.

The damage to the state’s budget could have been worse. White’s department initially awarded New Living Word more voucher slots than any other school in the state. Only after the Monroe News-Star exposed the sordid mess was White forced to trim the number from 315 to 165. Last school year, the “school” enrolled only 93 voucher students.

News about New Living Word shamed Jindal and White and made national headlines. And that’s besides the additional unwelcome attention the voucher program attracted by virtue of awarding vouchers to schools that teach creationism, not real science.

In White’s defense, perhaps he has a poor memory or doesn’t read the papers. How else to explain his surprise last week at audits of the 117 Louisiana charter schools alleging, among other things, that New Living Word had overcharged the state $378,000.

Auditors said the school was bilking the taxpayers, charging the state-sponsored students far more than it billed its paying customers – an apparent violation of the legislation’s rules. The school denies the charges, but White promptly removed New Living Word from the voucher program.

White, of course, feigned outraged – but not about the fact that he’d wasted hundreds of thousands of tax dollars subsidizing shoddy instruction. “It shows a basic lack of competence,” he said about the school, not himself. “It can’t be tolerated.”

What White can tolerate is inferior instruction of your children via DVD. In his statement, he offered no explanation for his recklessness and incompetence.

And of the audits (basically internal investigations conducted by two Baton Rouge accounting firms), White trumpeted them as proof that his voucher program – save for New Living Word – is an unqualified success. The headline on a Department of Education press release proudly declared, “99 Percent of Schools Show No Violation.”

There’s just one problem with that statement: It’s patently false.

The audits were conducted to ensure that, “Scholarship funds shall be spent only on ‘educational purposes,’ as defined in the most recently approved Minimum Foundation Program formula. Any expenditure of scholarship funds constituting gross irresponsibility or gross individual enrichment is prohibited.”

In fact, the audits revealed that the afore-mentioned standard “could not be completed for forty-nine of the fifty-one private schools reviewed.” One audit is littered with the following statement, concerning the records of dozens of voucher schools: “We were unable to perform the procedures because the school did not have a separate checking account or other procedures to account for scholarship expenditures separate from other expenditures.”

Most of the schools were also unable to verify that their “expenditures do not constitute gross irresponsibility and are not individually enriching.” These are not insignificant findings except, apparently, to White. The state will spend about $45 million in the current fiscal year on vouchers for about 8,000 students.

To suggest that the audits uncovered “no violations” is a bit like saying that since I didn’t file my taxes for the past five years, and because the IRS can’t yet determine if I actually paid any taxes, there’s no problem.

Jindal and White talk a great deal about how teachers, schools and students should be held accountable for their actions. Yet, their own education “reforms” appear to be as shoddy and deceitful as the product of the New Living Word “school.”


So, isn’t it time someone finally held them accountable?

Robert Mann, a professor at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, can be reached at bob.mann@outlook.com. Follow him at twitter.com/RTMannJr.

via Where is state voucher money actually going?: Robert Mann | NOLA.com.

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