Thanks to leaders like Governor Bobby Jindal, Superintendent John White and state lawmakers, all low-income parents of K-12 students attending a C, D, or F school in Louisiana now have the opportunity to apply for a state-funded scholarship to attend a participating A or B public school or an approved private school.
The expanded Louisiana Scholarship Program, which was previously only available in New Orleans and only to K-3 students, is off to a great start. Louisianans have shown tremendous support for the program, with more than 10,000 scholarship applications received in its first year – exceeding state expectations five times over.
Yet, no good deed goes unpunished in this world, and education reform is no exception. The criticism from opponents is nothing new; it mirrors what Florida went through more than a decade ago. Florida lawmakers instituted K-12 reforms in 1999, and efforts were rewarded with strident opposition from a vocal minority. Die-hard skeptics grew increasingly isolated, however, as Florida’s childhood illiteracy rate plunged, high-school graduation rates improved and the number of Black and Hispanic students passing Advanced Placement exams tripled. There is still much more to do in Florida, but the progress is undeniable. Despite the murmurings of critics, parental choice and other reforms helped transform Florida’s public education system for the better, and it can do the same for Louisiana.
Louisiana reform skeptics should take care not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Rather than resisting reform, Louisianans of all backgrounds should be working together to maximize opportunities and achievement for all students. Perhaps the best thing about the Louisiana Scholarship Program is that it is designed to make a difference among the students who need it most, helping to close the minority and low-income student achievement gap. The report, “Changing Lives: A Progress Report on the Louisiana Scholarship Program,” released last week by the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, found that of the nearly 5,000 students receiving a scholarship this year, 91 percent are minorities, and all families in the program earn 250 percent or less than the federal poverty line.
Much of the Louisiana discussion has focused on the issue of accountability. Under Louisiana’s program only A and B public schools and high-quality private schools are eligible to receive scholarship students. Further, the bottom-up approach, created by empowering parents to vote with their feet if their child’s school is not meeting their needs, represents the ultimate form of accountability. No amount of regulatory compliance can hope to match a system of decentralized parental choice. Compliance models focus on school and grade-level average results, while empowered parents focus on the particular needs of their children.
Successful education reforms include a variety of strategies to increase parental involvement in the education of their children. All of the major reforms in Florida, from grading schools to curtailing social promotion to expanding digital learning opportunities, contained strategies for getting parents more involved. School choice represents the most fundamental involvement strategy of all. Louisiana’s public school system will enjoy much brighter days once parents routinely match the needs of their children with the strengths of their schools.
As the debate over reform continues in Louisiana, remember that a decade from now the vast majority of Louisiana students will likely still be attending public schools. Nothing has been done that will change that basic fact. Students can and should attend their public school by choice rather than simply by zip code.