And Another Thing… with Anitra Brown

As you may have read, The New Orleans Advocate recently reported a story that featured former lawmaker Ann Duplessis, who now leads the Louisiana Federation for Children, detailing why she has changed her position on education vouchers or the use public money to fund tuition at private schools for those students who could otherwise not afford it.

As a state senator, Duplessis had been against vouchers, helping to stop the first voucher bill considered by the state legislature. She has since changed her mind, according to The Advocate report. The senseless murder of her father triggered that turnaround, she tells local daily. Duplessis’ father Rev. Albert Davis was killed by two teenagers more than 30 years ago. It was reportedly in the middle of the day. And they may have been two teens that should have been in school. They were likely two teens that had been let down by the every social structure and safety net that should have been there to help steer them on a better path.

Let’s understand that the level of desperation, hopelessness, fear and anger that must fester inside someone so much so that it drives them to commit such a heinous crime does not happen overnight. So we could say a lopsided economy that favors the rich and rejects the poor failed them, that public education failed them, that teachers and educational leaders failed them, that parents and preachers failed them.

Yep, without knowing a thing about the two perpetrators, it is still probably a safe bet that somewhere along the way they were lost when they could have been saved. What we cannot say, what is nearly ridiculous to even suggest is that vouchers were the answer—some magic remedy for the social ills that challenge our community.

And we need only look at the voucher (or so-called state scholarship) program that exists now for the reason why vouchers are no answer to the real problems. Let’s talk sheer numbers first.

Numbers Don’t Lie

According to the Louisiana Scholarship Program’s website, nearly 10,000 students applied for vouchers in the 2012-2013 school year. Almost 6,000 were awarded; and about 5,000 were accepted and used by parents to send their children to private school. Ostensibly, these children would otherwise be enrolled in a public school that earned a C or lower in the state academic accountability system. Statewide, there are about 691,000 public school students. In other words, vouchers help considerably less than one percent of all public school students achieve better educational outcomes. And that is presuming that the private educations are better than the ones they would have received in public school. I will dispel that myth later.

If the public education system is so broken that the best answer is to use public funds to pay private school tuition for students who would otherwise attend public school, why is it OK for the nearly 691,000 students left behind . . . in the broken system. What about them?

Numbers Still Don’t Lie

Now, to the other salient point. Private schools are not better at educating children just because they are private. And more to the point, it appears that many of the schools taking part in the state’s scholarship program are doing a dreadful job. It is amazing how so many reform advocates think that if they tell us the sky is pink, we will some how just believe the sky is pink without taking a gander into heavens for ourselves.

Well, I looked into the great expanse above with all four of my eyes, and this is what I see:
• At least 45 percent of the nearly 5,000 students in the program last year attended schools that ranked D or F based on the state’s accountability assessment.
• More bad news. Data released in May on LEAP scores for third- through eighth-graders show only 40 percent of voucher students scored at or above grade level. That means 60 percent–more than half—of them scored below grade level.
• And voucher students scored an average of 30 points lower than their public school counterparts on last year’s high-stakes accountability tests.

Wait, you only give vouchers to less than one percent of all public school students to go to private schools and many of them aren’t performing as well as the students left in the public schools! In fact, they are performing far worse! Can I get a refund! No, really someone needs to calculate the portion of my tax dollars that funded this program and send me a check. I want my money back.

No Time for Anecdotes

While we certainly sympathize with the loss Duplessis felt and continues to feel with regard to her father’s tragic death, we must be realistic here. Vouchers would not have saved him no more than they would have saved the two kids turned criminals that took his life. The problems that breed the mis-education and ensuing poverty and violence that challenge our communities every day are so entrenched and multi-faceted that to suggest that a few thousand vouchers will save the day is impractical and a poor use of public money. Yes, overhauling public education is a part of the answer. The thing is that vouchers don’t overhaul public education. They raid the public education system. They are a step toward abandoning it. But you cannot not let a ship with 691,000 people still on board sink, no more than you should put 5,000 people on a lifeboat with a hole in it.

The failure of our public education system to meet the needs of the most vulnerable students in such a way that it helps to stem the tide of cyclical poverty, violence and crime cannot be treated with anecdotes no matter how heart-wrenching.

The answer: fix the system.

By the way, the fix is not found in the quasi-private charter school system that now litters our landscape (especially in Orleans Parish). Remember, numbers don’t lie; and the vast majority of the charter schools in the Recovery School District have earned a D or F— failing grades even by our state’s standards.

So I say that then-Sen. Duplessis was right as rain many years ago when she surmised that vouchers were just a way to funnel public money to fledgling private schools with sagging enrollments. More than that, they put a drain a public system already in need of additional support and resources—a public system that continues to educate the vast majority of children across the state.

The answer: fix the system so that it serves every student by meeting their needs for a quality education and guiding their growth into responsible, responsive adults able to contribute to society and take of themselves and their families.

Fix the system. Don’t abandon it. Don’t weaken it. Fix it.

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