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Education reform opponents fail to offer cogent critiques

Supporters of bigger government and reduced individual choice are scrambling to find arguments against Gov. Bobby Jindal’s as-yet general proposal to expand nongovernment school options for students in average-or-worse public schools. As indicated by remarks of theirs, they offer nothing anywhere close to compelling.

Director of the leftist Louisiana Coalition for Progress, Melissa Flournoy, at a recent appearance gave it a go to oppose the proposal, which would allow any student in a school rated C, D, or F to receive a scholarship voucher (both terms being used interchangeably so why not combine them), at present guessed to be at the $4,000-5,000 range, from the state to pay for a child’s education at a private school (the legislation may end up allowing it to be used at any public school as well). In presenting her case Flournoy, who served from 1992-96 in the state House but who alienated her constituents so quickly that she ran for election for the Senate instead and lost, made errors both in argumentation and in logic that demonstrate these tactics should be insufficient to stop this policy from being enacted.

First, Flournoy claimed that a limited segment of the population could benefit from the program. She asserted that the tuition at Baton Rouge schools, for example, was too high for the presumed upper limit that Jindal’s proposal would allow, meaning that only family’s with additional resources could take advantage of the program.

But she seems entirely ignorant of the actual potential program costs and tuition levels at the New Orleans schools actually part of the ongoing Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program, which presumably is what the expanded statewide version would be like. In this, the state pays up to a certain level tuition and fees, although presently it is restricted to elementary schools and is means-tested, while Jindal’s contemplated version likely would include high schools and be open to families at any income level.

For fiscal year 2008-09 (data used are a bit dated as these are congruent with the state’s latest data release), the typical payment in New Orleans was under $4,000 (for 2011-12, it was about $4,595, and now theoretically also can include Jefferson Parish students and schools). By contrast, the average cost in 2008-09 per pupil was $10,572 (for all but special schools), with the state picking up on average $8,195 of this (which includes federal funds that contributed about a third of that). For these schools, at present levels of supply families of any income levels would have next to no out-of-pocket expenses, contrary to Flournoy’s claim.

Secondary education is another matter. In 2010-11, the average tuition for a Catholic high school in Orleans was around $8,000, above the putative level. Still, this is below the average state cost and so, theoretically, the program could be constructed to reimburse at this level and the state still would come out spending less money. Another factor to consider, however, is that these tuition rates are subsidized by endowments and donations, and economies of scale probably would push rates up as it is uncertain whether the pace of giving and investment returns would expand this pot as fast as enrollments might go up. Even so, it’s clear that a large portion of families, if not all of them with children in elementary school, would be able to participate in the program at little or no cost.

Flournoy also erred in calling for plan rejection on the basis that it could not possibly service an estimated 380,000 students. Weirdly, she framed the argument in all-or-nothing terms, that because the nongovernment school infrastructure at present could not handle this large influx, that the whole idea needed abandoning. Certainly that capacity now doesn’t exist, and not all such schools may wish to participate in it anyway. Yet didn’t seem to cross her mind that implementation could occur gradually and, if successfully, the infrastructure supplied would develop to the equilibrium point of demand. Application of a solution to part of a problem still solves the problem for some portion. Her approach of throwing the baby out with the bathwater makes no logical sense.

Finally, she made the counterintuitive statement that this program would divert money from public schools. In reality, it could cause per pupil spending by the state in public schools to increase. The Jindal proposition likely will siphon money out of the Minimum Foundation Program that funds schools at levels consistent with the tuition and fee charges. But since the amount of these dollars is less than the amount that would go to a public school, more dollars per public school student would be left over for distribution to public schools. Unless Jindal plans on withdrawing the savings in total from what remains in the pool for public schools, on a per pupil basis they will do better under his plan.

A group allied with Flournoy’s outfit, the leftist Louisiana Budget Project, tried to provide her backup with the release of its opinion on the matter. Besides tossing out non-sequiturs – long ago the judiciary ruled this kind of program does not have “public dollars … support … religious education” – it makes the same mistaken scalar argument, and introduces an additional red herring, that any private school that accepts any of these students should have the same testing and accountability standards as public schools. Currently, only those students enjoying the program are tested, with the state releasing results for all schools with at least ten such student scores, and no accountability letter grade is assigned to these private schools.

But testing all students and then deciding whether a school could participate on that basis is irrelevant to the public policy goals of the intended change. Only how those using public dollars are doing is relevant to gauging the job these schools perform as far as the taxpayer is concerned. And families will know best how their children fare and what they think of a school, with any previous public school education as a baseline by which to make this easy comparison, in deciding whether a particular school is up to snuff. The LBP recommendation would have the effect, and may reflect a tactic of opponents, of discouraging private school participation by creating extra bureaucratic hurdles and costs for them.

The lack of fact and logic in these arguments in opposition point to the probable course these opponents will take. Unable to provide compelling reasons to oppose, expect broad, even hysterical, appeals to emotion, particularly from the state’s public education establishment and special interests invested in the current troubled, if slowly improving, system and philosophy of maximum government control. Louisiana’s children deserve better, and their families, especially those with fewer means, should have an opportunity to have their children grow academically beyond what government monopoly can supply. It’s a proposition those beholden to the current system and enthralled with government-knows-best ideology will fight tooth and nail, regardless of the lack of quality to their arguments, putting rhetoric ahead of what is best for schoolchildren.


Anonymous said...



I would suggest that, if your position and argument were superior, there would be no need to do that.

Mr. Harris Plutocrat said...

Sadow almost always demonizes those he disagrees with. That's how today's neocons operate.

As for education in Louisiana, maybe this backwards state should integrate its schools like the rest of the modern world. That's the real issue around here. Maybe you should move beyond 1958. This is the elephant in the room that nobody talks about around here, and its a total disgrace