Op-ed: Budget group responds to criticism

By Jan Moller
Special to The Political Desk

Twenty-two years ago, back when bipartisanship was still possible on Capitol Hill, the U.S. Congress passed a bill that required all packaged food to be labeled with detailed nutritional information.

With the stroke of President George H.W. Bush’s pen, supermarket shoppers across the country were suddenly entitled to know how many calories, carbs and grams of sugar were in their morning cereal. Freedom-loving Americans could still start their day with a bowl of Fruit Loops or a Pop-Tart, but it was a more informed choice.

(Today, such a bill would no doubt get attacked as a socialist, free-market-destroying Big Government conspiracy).

It was in this spirit of disclosure and accountability that the Louisiana Budget Project released a paper last month that called for testing and accountability requirements to be included in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan to expand the availability of private-school vouchers.

For anyone who hasn’t heard, the governor is proposing a dramatic expansion of the voucher program that was launched in 2008, which currently allows 1,849 low-income students in New Orleans to attend private schools at the state’s expense. The governor wants to take the program statewide, and cover students from families below 250 percent of the poverty line who attend a public school graded “C”, “D” or “F” under the state’s new letter-grade system.

An estimated 380,000 students – 54 percent of the public school population – would be eligible for a voucher under the new plan.

Our suggestion is a simple one, which we borrowed from a school voucher plan recently approved in Indiana: Any private school that accepts vouchers should be required to give standardized tests to all its students, and be graded on the same A-F scale that applies to public schools. That way, parents could make a truly informed choice when weighing whether to send a child to a public or private school.

Under this system, parents would still be free to choose a lower-rated private school if they think it’s a better fit for their child. And a private school that didn’t want to administer standardized tests would still have that freedom; they just wouldn’t be able to accept vouchers.

For this the Louisiana Budget Project was labeled an “enemy of change” by the publisher of the Baton Rouge Business Report (who doubles as the governor’s campaign treasurer) and called much worse names by a writer for a far right-wing blog.

Curiously, the criticism from Business Report’s Rolfe McCollister came just four paragraphs before he extolled the Indiana voucher plan that we cited as a model in our report.

Rather than debate the merits of accountability, our critics focused on attacking our organization’s funding. This is a smoke-screen, erected by those who cannot or will not defend a voucher plan that gives private schools a taxpayer-financed blank check.

For the record, we are proud of our funders, who support our mission of providing research and analysis on state budget issues and their effect on poor and moderate-income residents. We list our supporters prominently on our website, and thank them publicly every chance we get.

The real issue here is not who finances our non-profit group, but whether the taxpayers who fund our public schools have a right to expect transparency and accountability across the board.

Louisiana has been recognized as a national leader in setting public school standards, assessments and accountability, receiving an ‘A’ for its efforts recently from Education Week. It would be a shame if these efforts were undermined by a voucher plan that did not require similarly high standards for private schools that receive taxpayer support.

If private schools truly are better, as their supporters say, the tests will surely bear that out. And if Mr. McCollister wants to have a real debate about standards and accountability, instead of erecting a rhetorical smoke screen, then the Louisiana Budget Project is happy to oblige. We’ll even bring the Pop-Tarts.


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