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A Good Balance? Louisiana Brings New Kind of Accountability to Voucher Schools

Choice and accountability are two words you’ll hear my Education Policy Center friends say quite a bit if you’re around them enough. Empowering families with a broader range of educational options, and providing transparent information about — and real consequences for — a school ’s learning results, are two general principles they and I regularly espouse. But what kind of accountability is appropriate for private schools that accept voucher students?

One state with a large and growing private school choice program yesterday broke ground by adopting rules of a different kind from its predecessors. Fordham Institute blogger Adam Emerson, who supports the move, boils the decision down to its essence:

Louisiana has shown us that it’s possible to offer private-school choice and control for quality in a way that doesn’t cramp what makes a private school unique.

And in doing so, Louisiana has broken ground in school-voucher policy. While other states have made voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs more transparent, only Louisiana would regulate enrollment at schools that consistently show poor performance. [emphasis added]

Friedman Foundation President and CEO Robert Enlow, one of the nation’s most ardent advocates for expanding private school choice, also approves of the new rules, noting that Louisiana’s “Department of Education has done an excellent and thoughtful job of balancing the need for nonpublic school autonomy with the need to protect children and ensure the public trust.” An interesting facet of the decision, only schools that accept more voucher students (an average of 10 per grade or more than 40 overall) would be subject to the consequences of not being able to enroll new voucher students.

Of course, with a difficult policy balancing act like this one, critics are certainly bound to emerge. Those not supportive of private school choice to begin with, say the measures aren’t strong enough:

Critics of the accountability plans said the standards will provide too little information for parents to judge private schools. They also say they will give [Louisiana Superintendent of Education John] White too much authority to waive basic protections and won’t ensure that students are getting a better education than they would in public schools.

“We should not be fooling the public that this is true accountability because it isn’t,” said Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge.

The clear retort is that parents are best equipped to determine if their students “are getting a better education.” Which opens the door for critics on the other side who might say that Louisiana’s new rules put too much power in the hands of government officials. Isn’t accountability to parents the main thing? There’s a valid question to address here, though: What should be done, if anything, to private schools that receive lots of voucher students but are consistently low-performing?

There’s bound to be philosophical differences, and I look forward to reading and hearing more of the debate. But for now, I’m just happy to see choice and opportunity expand for many low- and middle-income Louisiana students who were stuck in failing schools.