Filed Under:  Education, Local, News

Under pressure, BESE establishes guidelines for private schools

30th July 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Mason Harrison
Contributing Writer

In response to stepped up efforts by various education advocates, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) signed off on a handful of minimum standards July 24 regulating the performance of private schools that receive tax dollars in the form of academic vouchers. Critics of the voucher program have long asserted that private educators are not required to meet the same benchmarks as their public school counterparts and contend that the latest batch of reform measures fall short of improving state education.

The package of reforms includes a provision barring private schools from increasing “enrollment that is greater than 125 percent of their total student enrollment in the previous school year or 50 students more than were enrolled in the previous school year, including pre-Kindergarten enrollment.” Vouchers can be a boon to private schools’ budgets and the temptation to boost enrollment to grab added dollars can be hard for some to resist.

Louisiana Progress, a school reform advocacy group, had pushed for limiting increased enrollment to no more than 20 percent higher than figures for the previous school year. But state officials will allow beefed up enrollment in cases where there is demonstrated “parent demand” and if schools are able to show they can handle a higher-than-normal student population.

The state’s voucher program has also helped to swell the ranks of religious schools, leading some reform advocates to question the potential strength of education in Louisiana. Dr. Melissa Flournoy, who heads Louisiana Progress, states, “[L]eaving First Amend­ment concerns aside, the dominance of Christian school options raises many questions about how this shift to religious academies will affect the quality of Louisiana education,” according to her prepared remarks before BESE officials.

She buttresses her concerns by mentioning one particular religious school that makes use of textbooks that preface a reading of scientific material with the words “what God made” when discussing the “six days of creation.” The students, Flournoy laments, “are not exposed to the theory of evolution.”

BESE officials also spelled out requirements for limiting increases in student tuition. Louisiana Progress backed an effort to curb tuition hikes to no more than a 20 percent increase, but under the new standards private schools are only required to charge voucher recipients a tuition rate equal to the amount of tuition assessed to students not enrolled in the state program. Doing so could allow private educators to raise tuition rates for the state’s voucher recipients as long as the hikes are linked to increases for non-voucher students.

Louisiana Progress also pressed state officials to prevent private schools from accepting voucher money that fail to have “adequate physical facilities for all enrolled students on the first day of the school year,” according to the prepared remarks. In response, BESE members codified a rule requiring that schools in receipt of voucher funds “be in compliance with all federal, state, and local laws and regulations pertaining to the health, safety, and welfare of students.”

Flournoy’s group also sought to require private educators to comply with the state’s handbook for nonpublic school administrators. It remains unclear from the newly minted reforms what level of adherence BESE officials plan to require of private administrators, but officials did put in a place an accountability system for nonpublic schools that stresses the importance of student achievement and outlines the state’s authority for rearranging performance measures.

This article was originally published in the July 30, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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