Politics & Policy

Surprise: Louisiana’s Democratic Governor Goes After School Vouchers, Despite His Campaign Promise

Governor John Bel Edwards (Portrait: Marie Constantin)
John Bel Edwards goes back on his campaign promise, to the delight of the teachers’ unions.

Earlier this month, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards declared that his state’s budget crisis “threatens our future and the future of our children.” Now he’s making sure it does. As a way of helping close Louisiana’s budget shortfall, the governor has proposed cutting $6 million from the $42 million budget of Louisiana’s school-choice program — a 14 percent cut that imperils vouchers for 1,000 of the program’s 8,000 beneficiaries.

When Edwards defeated scandal-plagued Republican David Vitter in last fall’s governor’s contest, the Louisiana’s teachers’ unions rejoiced: “It’s not every day that education can say we have a champion in the governor’s mansion, but today we certainly do,” Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), said in February at an event co-hosted by LAE and the National Education Association (NEA). And Edwards welcomed the praise: “I get painted as a person who is close to teachers’ unions,” he said at the same event. “I’m not going to distance myself.”

And why would he? Louisiana’s teachers’ unions were stalwart — and generous — supporters of Edwards’s campaign, backing him even when he was considered a long shot. Edwards, for his part, was a staunch supporter of the public-school monopoly during his eight years as a Democratic member of the Louisiana House of Representatives. And when he served on the House Education Committee, he was a vehement opponent of the state’s voucher program; he filed several bills to restrict it. At the NEA/LAE event in February, he reiterated his education priorities: “We should not divert any resources away from our traditional public schools for unproven gimmicks, especially when we don’t have many resources to begin with.”

Yet despite his charter-school skepticism, Edwards promised when he was running for governor that he would not end vouchers to anyone currently receiving them.

RELATED: School-Voucher Rules Trip Up Student Success in Louisiana

So parents of scholarship students are furious that Edwards is considering breaking his promise.  The Louisiana Federation for Children, a branch of the American Federation for Children, the nation’s leading proponent of school choice, has launched an ad campaign — titled “John Bel Failed Us” — featuring parents accusing the governor of breaking his word.

The outrage is neither surprising nor unwarranted. Louisiana’s public-school system is not a beacon of success. Education Week’s “Quality Counts 2016” report, published earlier this year, awarded Louisiana’s schools a D+. Ranked by student achievement, Louisiana’s school system is tied with West Virginia’s for third-worst in the country. In 2014, Louisiana achieved record-high levels of high-school graduation — 75 percent — and was still near the bottom of states. Given that vouchers are only for students in public schools given “C,” “D,” or “F” rankings by the state, it’s the worst schools that Edwards is proposing forcing students back into. By contrast, the voucher program has a 90 percent satisfaction rate. (Fun fact: Edwards has said that students in C schools should not be allowed to use the voucher program, since C schools “by definition are not failing.” Dream big, kids.)

#share#Edwards maintains that he is not going to default on his promise. All students will get their vouchers — they’ll just be worth less. But that’s not a solution, either. The current award (averaging $4,500) usually does not fund the full cost of attending a non-public school, and it’s unlikely that families using the scholarships would be able to cover the difference. Reducing awards would discourage new schools from accepting vouchers, and it would probably force some schools already participating to drop out of the voucher program because they’d be unable to shoulder the greater financial burden. Further complicating the situation is that the governor may not in fact have the legal authority to reduce the scholarship amount once it’s been awarded.

RELATED: School Choice Reaches a Tipping Point

Edwards has tried to dismiss allegations that he is targeting the voucher program by suggesting that he has “spread the cuts over a broad base of services.” And it’s true that other services have been cut — but usually by 1–2 percent. The school-choice program, by contrast, has been gouged.

The program actually needs more money to meet demand. Last year, 13,000 students applied for 8,000 spots. To make the program available at current award levels to every applicant would require about $49 million, according to the American Federation for Children.

And if the problem is limited resources, it’s hardly obvious that reducing vouchers is the cost-saving option. The state already allocates $8,500 to every public-school student. At the current voucher level, every student shifted out of the public to the non-public-school system saves the state at least $3,500.

The governor’s budget is still making its way through Louisiana’s legislature, and it’s likely that Edwards will have to call a special session to complete the process. But Ann Duplessis, president of the Louisiana Federation for Children and a former Democratic state senator, is hopeful: “We have a great coalition of people here in Louisiana who get it. The governor has done everything he could possibly do to dismantle the program, but it’s not going to happen without a huge, huge fight.”

#related#And families and legislators should fight. Louisiana has the fifth-worst statewide violent-crime rate, according to the United Health Foundation; it has the third-highest rate of unemployment; it’s the poorest or second-poorest state (depending on the metric), with one in five residents living in poverty. Being able to escape failing schools is one part of being able to escape the intergenerational cycle of destitution and crime that has plagued the Bayou State for decades. Those problems afflict minority communities especially, so it’s no coincidence that nine in ten students participating in the voucher program are minorities.

Ironically, many of these families are Edwards’s voters. But instead of acting in their best interest, he’s eager to restrict their freedom and consolidate the power of the public-school powers that be. Using the budget as cover, he’s freezing the program where it is in order to make it easier to chip away at it in the future, when his campaign promises are out of mind.

Edwards has expressed concern that Louisiana is “failing our children.” It will if it adopts the governor’s regressive policies.

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