Editor’s note: The following is a guest column written by James Finney, Ph.D., of Baton Rouge. This was first posted on his blog, Methodical, Musical Mathematician’s Musings, and we felt it was an important essay that addressed issues with the state’s flawed school voucher program. Rather than simply publishing a link to his post, Dr. Finney was gracious enough to allow us to re-post it in its entirety on LouisianaVoice. Dr. Finney is a math teacher with an interest in transparent and effective government. He grew up in South Dakota but has lived in Baton Rouge for more than 20 years.
His observations should not be interpreted as a criticism of the Catholic Church but rather an objective look at how the state’s voucher program has been mismanaged and vouchers paid in disproportionate amounts to church-affiliated schools by the Louisiana Department of Education.
By James Finney, Ph.D.
Did the headline get your attention? If so, that’s good. When I saw the details of voucher funding for 2014-15, I was startled at how much of the nearly $40 million in spending went to Catholic schools.
The total amount sent to the 131 voucher schools participating in the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence program in 2014-15 was $39,486,798.20. This figure is reported in a spreadsheet I received from the Department of Education in response to a public record request. Of that, approximately two-thirds ($26,819,434.44) went to the 76 participating schools that are affiliated with the New Orleans Archdiocese and the Dioceses of Shreveport, Alexandria, Baton Rouge, Houma-Thibodaux, Lafayette, and Lake Charles.
A defender of the voucher program might suggest that most of the private schools in the state are Catholic, so it makes sense that most of the vouchers would be used in Catholic schools. The evidence says otherwise. There are 412 nonpublic schools listed in the state’s 2015-16 School Directory (which I received incidental to another public record request). Of those, 190 are identified by the state as being Catholic. So the Catholic schools are fewer than half the nonpublic schools, but they account for two-thirds of the vouchers. There is no easy way to compare total enrollment (Catholic vs. non-Catholic private schools) since the state does not appear to collect or report private-school enrollment data.
As mentioned earlier, 76 of the 131 voucher schools are Catholic. Of the remaining 55, nearly half (25) have a school name containing the word “Christian” and nine have a name containing “Lutheran”, “Living Word”, “Bishop”, “Baptist”, “Adventist” or “Bible”. And there’s Jewish Community Day School. So that leaves roughly 20 of the voucher schools that might be secular. So much for the separation of Church and State.
It’s interesting to rank the voucher schools by total amount paid in 2014-15: The top six schools account for more than $10 million, and the next 14 for more than another $10 million:
- St. Mary’s Academy (Girls) (C), Orleans (417): $2,606,160
- Hosanna Christian Academy (AG), EBR (390): $2,265,944
- Resurrection of Our Lord School (C), Orleans (466): $2,103,286
- Our Lady of Prompt Succor (C), Jefferson (208): $1,045,417
- St. Louis King of France School (C), EBR (182): $1,021,094
- 506087 Leo the Great School (C), Orleans (191): $1,016,667
Five of the most expensive voucher schools, and 17 of the top 20, are Catholic. The non-Catholic schools among the top 20 are Hosanna Christian Academy (No. 2 above), Evangel Christian Academy in Caddo Parish (No. 16) and Riverside Academy in St. John the Baptist Parish (No. 20).
One of the voucher schools appears to be a public school: Park Vista Elementary School in Opelousas (St. Landry Parish). It would be interesting to know the story on that school’s participation in the program, and where the students are coming from. The state sent the Parish an average of somewhere around $7,760 each for 19 students, contributing $150,000 to the local system’s bottom line. Compare that to the $5,570 that the state sent to St. Landry Parish Schools in Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) funding for each student who actually lived in St. Landry Parish.
Two of the schools that received vouchers are not even on the state’s list of nonpublic schools: Walford School of New Orleans received $17,717, and McKinney-Byrd Academy in Shreveport received $3,566. If they aren’t on the state’s list of nonpublic schools, why did they receive voucher payments? In 2015-16, the SIHAF K12 Learning Academy joined the ranks of voucher schools not on the list of nonpublic schools, and in 2016-17, Weatherford Academy in Westwego will be allowed to offer up to six vouchers and Children’s College in Slidell will be allowed to offer one or two vouchers. Go figure.
State Superintendent of Education John White would like us to believe that at an average of around $5,500 each the vouchers saves the state a lot of money. There’s a flaw in that argument. The average per child state share of the MFP in 2014-15 was only $5,185. So there might be a savings to local school districts, if those local districts had to educate fewer students with the same amount of local tax revenue. Unfortunately, there’s a huge loophole in the voucher program that allows students who have never (and probably would never) have been enrolled in a public school to get their private educations funded by the state. Maybe that’s why I can’t get a meaningful response to my request to the Department of Education in which I seek the records of how many voucher students had actually “escaped” public schools.
As an example of the fallacy of the vouchers-as-a-bargain-for-the-state argument, consider East Baton Rouge Parish Schools. In 2014-15, the state share of MFP was $4,165 per student. Of the 20 voucher schools within the district’s boundaries, the only school with an average voucher amount below $4165 was St. Francis Xavier School at $4,103. At least five voucher schools charged the state over $8,000 per student. For two schools, Most Blessed Sacrament and Country Day School of Baton Rouge, both the average tuition per student and the number of students each quarter were (illegally?) redacted from the records supplied by the state, so there’s no way to know how much each school charged the taxpayers per student.
The highest tuition rate ($9,000) was charged by Prevailing Faith Christian Academy in Ouachita Parish for its 31 voucher students. It appears that the schools get to set the rate the state pays for an education over which the state exercises no oversight, as long as there are at least a few families willing to pay that amount out of their own pockets. With no effective state oversight, there is no way to tell just how good (or more likely how bad) a bargain the state is getting by funding private education.
Meanwhile only 91 schools are accepting applications for new voucher students in 2016-17. Perhaps many of the private schools have realized that mixing public money and private education is a bad idea all around.
F 17 of February 20 (voucher school status for 2016-17, and Q1 enrollment for 2015-16)
11 of February 20 – 2014-15 SEE Enrollment and Funding (2014-15 voucher spending)
2014-15-circular-no-1156a—final-budget-letter—march-2015 (Look at “Table 3 Levels 1&2” tab, in columns AP and AT.)