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Markets best to decide voucher program participation

As previously noted, in evaluating Louisiana’s scholarship voucher program, competing arguments are heard about how to measure the quality of the participating proprietary schools. Its opponents often argue that a grading system like that used for public schools should be employed, but not only does this have implementation difficulties, it also serves as a distraction from the real issue at hand.

In the state, public schools receive an annual grade that is at least half determined by progress in learning with factors of diploma completion (high school) and course credits earned (high school and middle school), all the way to progress being the sole determinant (elementary school). Until this past year, with one exception the only benefit provided by this system was acting as an information device for families to get some idea of how their school matched up to others and to an ideal. The exceptional benefit was that schools which consistently had the lowest, failing grade could become subject to corrective action. Thus, the only policy benefit that the system had was to create an incentive for the worst schools to improve or lose autonomy of varying degrees.

This left the large majority of public schools in the state unaffected by any policy levers that the grade could induce to improve their performances. Scores might have public relations and morale ramifications, but they carried no consequences as A and D scored schools were treated the same. But with the advent of the voucher program, suddenly these grades mattered, for now students from lower-income families could bail out of a D school, and even a C school under certain conditions, along with those of the F (failing) schools.


Christmas Day, 2013

This column publishes usually every Sunday through Thursday after noon (sometimes even before; maybe even after sundown on busy days) U.S. Central Time except whenever a significant national holiday falls on the Monday through Friday associated with the otherwise-usual publication on the previous day (unless it is Independence Day or Christmas or New Year's when it is the day on which the holiday is observed by the U.S. government). In my opinion, there are six of these: New Year's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veterans' Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas.

With Wednesday, Dec. 25 being Christmas Day, I invite you to explore this link.


Opening for Dardenne on managerial competence

In a contest expected to focus on ideas and policy, to date Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne smartly has taken the lead in staking out the campaign turf of competence in administration, partly by design, partly by fortuitous happenstance.

The all-but-announced gubernatorial candidate in the span of last week found two opportunities to prod voters with the thought that he could run state government, and potentially well. In essence, one fell into his lap when comments by reality television star/accidental political kingmaker Phil Robertson sparked controversy, leading the network that broadcast his show to say he was “suspended,” meaning somehow he wouldn’t appear in episodes for some indeterminate period. This prompted the Robertson clan to announce they might well look for a new network home for the show if it continued.

And Dardenne was there, if needed, the help grease the skids. With the only constitutional responsibility to wait until the governor was not able to serve in that capacity temporarily or permanently, the office of lieutenant governor was assigned the duty of overseeing the Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism. Facing budgetary stress, Dardenne went a step further and subsumed he secretary’s job into his.


PAR report falters in analyzing state hospital transformation

News flash from the Louisiana media: the privatization of operations of, with one exception, Louisiana’s former charity hospitals may put the state at risk of paying more than anticipated a few years from now. Or, maybe it won’t. That was the astoundingly definitive conclusion of a report from the Public Affairs Research Council on the process, which is long on explaining what’s happening with it but very short in reaching any bankable conclusions of what will happen.

The explanatory part, similar to that of its analysis of the Medicaid expansion aspect of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) of some months ago, is helpful to understand the complex financing process involved. But the report as a whole also suffers from the same drawback: less than realistically it considers the actual likely direction of future policy, and in fact appears to have somewhat of a dated quality already.

As a whole, the report notes all that has been going on and determines “there is good reason to be optimistic that care and access to services will improve” as a result of the transformation. Had it come out a few days later, perhaps it could have noted, to back up its relaying of state officials’ testimony in this regard of service expansion and access, the example of a pediatric unit reopening at University Medical Center in Lafayette by that new private operator that had to be closed by the state a year ago. This appears as one instance of how operating efficiencies are taking even a reduced amount of money than would have been required under state operation and yet still providing if not expanding services, to the benefit of clients and taxpayers.


Staying on sidelines put to test in voucher program audit

Long valuable as an instrument to determine whether government follows the law and to render a judgment on how well it does, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor retains this value because the office investigates impartially process and output of policy. Thus it’s an unwelcome development on the occasions where it begins to allow to slip into its products preferred policy positioning, as happened in a recent audit of the Louisiana Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program.

This audit probed the implementation of the program that allows families whose children are in underperforming public schools to receive state money to attend a participating, either public or nonpublic, qualifying school of their choice. It made several recommendations for programmatic changes, either by law or by Department of Education regulation, that addressed implementation issues including that DOE oversee more closely that participant schools keep better financial and client records, that DOE provide better metrics to match school resources to capacity in serving voucher students, and that DOE institute specific criteria for determining whether schools should continue participation, for consistency sake and accountability purposes.

In this case, the LLA produced a “performance audit,” wherein the agency not only renders an accounting of how well the law was followed, but also may insert recommendations for program operation, either directly to the agency running the program or (in a “matter for legislative consideration”) as a legal change to be wrought by its boss, the Legislature. And it’s here where problems may creep in, for in recommending these things the LLA is tempted to substitute its own policy-making judgment for that of the implementers or creators of the program.