By Stephanie Simon
(Reuters) - State money will continue to flow to scores of private and religious schools participating in Louisiana's new voucher program even if their students fail basic reading and math tests, according to new guidelines released by the state on Monday.
The voucher program, the most sweeping in the nation, is the linchpin of Louisiana's bold push to reshape public education. The state plans to shift tens of millions of dollars from public schools to pay not only private schools but also private businesses and private tutors to educate children across the state.
Republican Governor Bobby Jindal and other voucher advocates see the plan as a way to spur competition among schools and to expand parental choice. Critics, including teachers' unions, argue that vouchers unfairly divert vital tax dollars from public schools.
The Louisiana vouchers cover the full cost of private school tuition for poor and middle-class children who would otherwise attend a low-performing public school. In pushing the plan, Jindal and State Superintendent of Education John White promised to hold the private schools accountable for student achievement.
White said the accountability system unveiled on Monday would do just that.
"We're going to let parents choose the school that's right for them, and then we will hold those schools very accountable for their outcomes," White said.
Critics complained of gaping loopholes.
"I think it's window dressing," said Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. "It doesn't have any real teeth in it."
Under the new rules, schools will not be penalized for poor scores on state standardized tests if they have fewer than 40 voucher students enrolled in the upper elementary or secondary grades. Those schools can continue to receive state funds even if their voucher students fail to demonstrate basic competency in math, reading, science and social studies.
White estimated that 75 percent of the 120 private schools in the voucher program this year will fall into this protected category.
Schools with larger enrollments will get a numerical grade from the state based on their voucher students' test scores. A school that scores less than 50 on the 150-point scale will lose the right to bring in new voucher students. But it can continue to receive public money indefinitely to serve students already enrolled.
SMALL CHRISTIAN SCHOOLS
More than 10,000 students across Louisiana have applied for vouchers to attend private schools. A handful of seats are open in the state's most prestigious private schools, but most of the available slots are in small Christian schools with scant track records.
The new guidelines permit state officials to boot private schools from the voucher program if they demonstrate "gross or persistent lack of basic academic competence."
But White said he did not intend to micro-manage the private schools' curricula or approach to teaching. Some of the schools the state has approved for voucher students use Bible-based science textbooks and other controversial teaching approaches.
Lance Hill, executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research in New Orleans, said the new guidelines failed to hold private schools to the same academic standards as public schools.
"Almost all the voucher schools are religious schools," Hill said, "and many use an evangelical curriculum that teaches that humans walked the earth 6,000 years ago with dinosaurs. Do I, as a taxpayer, want my taxes to support that as a proper education in science?"
Louisiana's two teachers unions have filed suit to block the voucher program. The Louisiana School Boards Association and dozens of local school districts are also challenging the program in court.
(Editing by Jonathan Weber and Mohammad Zargham)