Over the past six years, The Dunham School has been in serious growth mode.
The independent Christian college preparatory academy on 23 acres in the Wimbledon subdivision off Perkins Road has added an entire new lower school, a new science wing and a Chapel Arts Complex.
With enrollment that has increased to 816 and a faculty that now numbers 115, the school isn’t desperate for additional students, but there is certainly room for more.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed voucher program, which would use state tax dollars to send children to the schools of their choice, has the potential to bring new students to The Dunham School. Some 380,000 public schoolchildren across Louisiana—or 54%—likely would meet eligibility requirements, which target low-income students from poor-performing public schools.
But while Dunham administrators are longtime advocates of school choice, it doesn’t necessarily mean the campus is going to participate.
“We are excited about the possibility that through this process, some kids who could benefit from a Dunham experience might have access to The Dunham School who have not had access to it before,” says Robert Welch, headmaster of The Dunham School and founder and current executive director of the Louisiana Association of Independent Schools. “Our heart’s desire would be to participate. But what we can’t do is go against the mission of the school or go against proven policies and procedures that have allowed us at this point in time to be very successful.”
Indeed, while administrators at independent schools tend to be ardent supporters of school choice in theory, not all of them might choose for their school to take part in such a program in practice.
Louisiana lawmakers are expected to consider the voucher program—part of a package of the governor’s education reforms—in the legislative session that begins March 12.
The details of how such a system might work aren’t known, given that no bills have been submitted. But Jindal and his staff have spent the past several weeks meeting with key stakeholders, including representatives from the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Louisiana Association of Independent Schools and church ministers.
Those people who have taken part in the sessions say they have centered in part on hammering out two crucial issues that likely will prove the deciding factors for many parochial and independent schools throughout Louisiana contemplating taking part in what would be a voluntary program: admissions and accountability.
For nearly four years, Louisiana has operated a pilot program in New Orleans called “Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence,” where roughly 1,800 children attend independent schools at taxpayer expense. The program initially was offered to students in grades K-3, but it has expanded each year by one grade and now reaches sixth grade.
Although the statewide Minimum Foundation Program per-pupil amount was $7,562 in the current school year, the average scholarship amount was just $4,595. The total program cost this school year was $9.7 million.
Testing of less than one-fourth of the scholarship recipients does show the students outperformed their peers in third-grade math and social studies and fourth-grade English language, science and social studies. But they remained below the Orleans Parish average.
The latest report by the Louisiana Department of Education indicates, “It can take up to four years before disadvantaged students reach higher levels of achievement compared to the nondisadvantaged public-school peers.”
Danny Loar, executive director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, says that as the governor prepares to take the program statewide to students in grades K-12, one of the primary concerns of independent schools is whether or not the program will remain permanent. Catholic schools account for two-thirds of the enrollment capacity in private education.
“Of course, the governor wants to make it a permanent program,” he says. “The concern is, if we expand and the program goes away, it would leave the school in a lurch. We’ll have to see the final bill.”
One of the factors in implementation that could prove a sticking point is admissions. Many of the upper-level private schools—particularly those considered college preparatory—test children to determine their suitability for rigorous study.
A state-funded voucher program might not allow them to do so for scholarship students, instead mandating that the Louisiana Department of Education place any and all eligible children in the schools of their choice. In instances where too many students seek a limited number of slots in a particular school, a lottery system would be used to select those who will attend. Voucher opponents say that’s only fair, given that public schools must take any and all comers, regardless of their academic abilities or disabilities.
But private school administrators say that could create a separate standard for scholarship recipients, given that students who don’t come through a voucher program are subjected to selective entrance exams. In some cases, they say, it could set children up for failure.
Parkview Baptist School Head of School Melanie Ezell, who also serves as president of the Louisiana Association of Independent Schools, says her school would be open to accepting scholarship students if it is allowed to test potential enrollees.
“My understanding is we will not be allowed to evaluate children who are coming in,” she says. “Some of these schools are college-preparatory schools; our mission is that 100% of our students go to college. Some may want to change their missions to accommodate more students; that’s not our wish. We feel very strongly about our mission.”
Ezell and Welch say testing goes both ways: It also serves as an indicator of whether a child might succeed in such an environment. Once students are admitted, they are expected to adhere to the school’s academic standards.
“To take a student blindly without any prior knowledge of their potential to succeed makes no sense in any school,” Welch says. “To have, for example, a child who is severely autistic put into an environment where they cannot succeed because of their learning difference is cruel.”
For their part, opponents of any voucher program are insisting that private schools that accept scholarship students should be required to undergo the same standardized testing and performance ratings now in place for public schools. In the Orleans Parish program, only scholarship recipients take standardized tests to measure performance.
The liberal think tank Louisiana Budget Project, for example, insists that “handing over public resources to private schools with no strings attached is bad public policy.”?Loar and many private school administrators say independent schools are measured by the ultimate accountability tool: the marketplace.
“These parents are not only paying taxes to fund the public schools, they’re also paying tuition for their own children,” he says. “If they’re not happy, then they leave. These schools wouldn’t exist if they weren’t putting out a good product.”
But Loar does say that the Catholic schools are open to voluntary discussions about nationwide common core-standards tests down the road.
Ezell notes that a large number of Louisiana’s independent schools are nationally accredited. To achieve that distinction, she says, they complete a rigorous review of the quality of their programs.
“I have no problem if the state honors that,” she says. “We don’t want a state system of accountability. We are already very transparent about what we’re doing and accountable to our families.”
Loar says independent schools will be better equipped to make a decision once the specifics are spelled out in law. For now, there is much uncertainty.
“The governor’s doing a great thing, and we fully support it,” he says. “Catholic schools have forever and ever been a lifeline out of poor neighborhoods for children to get educated and get into the middle class. We know we can offer that, and our parents feel safe. But there is a bit of anxiety about, ‘Should we commit to this thing?’ That’s what makes it tough.”