Superintendent of Education John White. (Donna Price / American Press)
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 16, 2012 5:23 PM
BATON ROUGE (AP) — Members of Louisiana's top school board agreed Tuesday on a plan to change the way the state determines whether private schools are eligible for public funding, after a new statewide voucher program raised questions about whether the review process is rigorous enough.
A committee of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education gave preliminary approval to changes proposed by Superintendent of Education John White. The committee backing came with support of a majority of BESE members. Final approval is planned for Wednesday.
The state's process for judging private schools has drawn attention because of Gov. Bobby Jindal's voucher program, which uses tax dollars to send students to private schools. To receive voucher students, a school first must be approved by the state to receive public funding.
The changes backed by the education board will give automatic approval to schools that achieve national accreditation standards and cut down on paperwork for schools accredited by other third-party organizations.
"We can make the process both streamlined ... and at the same time, much more reflective of educational practices today," White said.
Nonpublic schools aren't required to get state certification, but they must meet state standards in order to use parish public school buses and receive state aid for student textbooks. Students who graduate from private schools that meet the state criteria are able to receive free college tuition from the state's TOPS program.
Approval for public funding is also the first hurdle for a school to receive voucher students and the tax dollars associated with them. The schools must meet other benchmarks as well.
Nearly as soon as the voucher law was passed, critics of the program — including traditional public school leaders and teacher unions — questioned whether the state certification was tough enough to ensure voucher students will receive a quality education.
Private and parochial schools that are approved for public funding must show that they meet standards considered at least equal to those used in public schools. Currently, 376 nonpublic schools are confirmed eligible for public funding, and 117 are in the voucher program.
Under the revamp, schools that have received accreditation through certain national organizations will be declared eligible for public funding for a 5-year-period if they maintain that accreditation. Schools with other third-party accreditations will be able to submit that documentation as evidence for their eligibility with the state on an annual basis.
Schools without accreditation will have to respond to an online survey, for determination of eligibility for public funding. White plans to rework the survey questions, though he hasn't yet unveiled those changes.
White said schools shouldn't have to duplicate paperwork if they have gone through an accreditation review.
"When we request large amounts of paperwork, which is what is currently required in our process, we take time away from educating," he said.
Two BESE members voted against the changes: Lottie Beebe of Breaux Bridge and Carolyn Hill of Baton Rouge. Beebe and Hill said the revamp was moving too quickly and without enough input from an outside advisory council.
Other critics of the changes included opponents of the voucher program who said the reworked process could make it easier for a school to participate in the program.
Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, questioned what sort of third-party accreditations would be used and how those standards would be judged to ensure quality.