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Taking School Privatization to New Level

It was bound to happen. In what is the boldest move to date to privatize education, Louisiana this fall will give vouchers to parents to cover the full cost of tuition and fees at more than 120 private schools across the state ("Louisiana's bold bid to privatize schools," Reuters, Jun. 1). Approximately 380,000 students are expected to participate.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002 ruled that vouchers can be used as long as five criteria are met, most notably that they are given to parents and not to the schools. It's not clear if Louisiana's plan will pass muster. Although the vouchers will go directly to parents, I question whether the other requirements will be legally satisfied. For example, the programs must be neutral with respect to religion, and there must be adequate nonreligious options. But the schools in Louisiana that have been approved for participation are predominantly religious. Christian workbooks are widely used. I fail to understand how this approach is in compliance with the high court's decision.

There's another side of the story that needs to be considered as well. Private schools in Louisiana that enroll students with vouchers will have to administer the same standardized tests as public schools. Each school must report the results to parents and to the state. So far, the state superintendent of education has not said what he will do about schools that score poorly. That's an important omission because public schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress are subject to a series of sanctions, including closure. In rebuttal, supporters of the plan point to New Orleans, where 1,800 students seem to be getting a better education in charter schools than they received in traditional public schools.

No one, of course, knows if Louisiana will become a model for other states. But based on what I see, it is inevitable. Public opinion has slowly shifted toward parental choice as a basic right. Whether through the use of vouchers or their variants, it will be manifested.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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