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Louisiana Voucher Program Comes Under Fire in State Audit

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Louisiana's voucher program does not properly evaluate the academic performance of participating private schools and has no mechanism in place to make sure those schools have the capacity to serve voucher students, says a performance audit by the state legislative auditor.

The audit also found that the state education department underpaid or overpaid 41 percent of the schools participating in the voucher program in 2012-13.

The program, called Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence, has grown exponentially, from 1,832 students in 2011-12 to 4,964 in 2012-13, the audit found. An additional 1,805 students joined the program in 2013-14. School participation has also grown quickly, jumping from 33 schools in 2011-12 to 118 schools in 2012-13. Currently, 126 schools are participating in the voucher program.

Under Louisiana's law, private schools participating in the voucher program must have an A or B rating, but there is no standardized evaluation process to determine if these schools meet that criteria, the audit found. In addition, there is no formalized criteria to determine if participating schools have the academic or physical capacity to serve the number of voucher students they accept.

To be eligible for the vouchers, families cannot earn more than 250 percent above the federal poverty line, and students must be enrolled in a public school with a C, D, or F grade. 

The audit also found that the Louisiana Department of Education has not yet defined how to determine when a participating school should be removed from the program for poor academic performance. The audit contends that the department should define more specific criteria to determine ineligible schools, but the state department argues that it has restricted some schools for poor academic performance and that it needs discretion and flexibility to make that determination.

Forty-eight of the 118 participating schools in 2012-13 overcharged or undercharged the state department for tuition payments, even though the law requires tuition amounts to be consistent for voucher and non-voucher students. Most of the schools identified for not billing the state accurately—35 of them—asked the state department to pay tuition rates for voucher students that were higher than those for non-voucher students. The overcharges ranged from $5 to $5,566 per student, the audit said.

Five schools were found to be have been paid for students who were not actually eligible to receive voucher funds.

Eric B. Lewis, the Louisiana state director for the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a pro-voucher advocacy organization, responded to the audit in an interview with Education Week.

"We want to make certain that kids are getting the education they need, and we'll continue to work with the department stakeholders to make sure we maximize accountability and outcomes for kids," he said.

For the vast majority of the schools (97 percent), auditors were unable to determine how the funding was used because the schools did not use separate accounting practices for the voucher-related funding. The audit recommends that the state department mandate participating schools keep voucher funds separate from all other funding streams in its accounting practices.

The audit comes in the wake of a federal motion that sought to keep the state from issuing vouchers in school districts under desegregation orders, prompting severe backlash from Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who championed the program. A recent ruling from a federal judge found that the federal government has the right to oversee the program's implications on desegregation efforts there, but should not hamper the implementation of the program either.

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