Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer
Aug 17, 2019

The cost of school choice

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to create the first-ever federal school voucher-type program. Vouchers pay for K-12 tuition at private schools.

What’s the track record? We investigate Louisiana’s voucher program, which started 10 years ago, promising a better education for low-income students. Jess Clark of WWNO follows single mom Dominique Martin as she tries to find a good voucher school for her daughter Demi.

Taxpayers in Louisiana pay $40 million every year for private school tuition, and those dollars help keep private schools afloat. Clark digs into the books of one for-profit school where the tuition of every single student is paid for by the state. She finds out the limits of transparency, even at schools getting public funds.

Host Al Letson wraps up, putting it all into context of local culture and national politics.

We teamed up with three Louisiana news organizations – public radio station WWNO, Fox 8 WVUE and NOLA.com / The Times-Picayune – to cover this story. It’s part of Reveal’s Local Labs initiative to support newsrooms across the country as they tackle important local issues.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: Our series of stories on the Louisiana Scholarship Program as part of our Local Labs initiative

Credits

Today's show was produced in collaboration with Lee Zurik and Cody Lillich of Fox 8 WVUE, Kim Chatelain and Manuel Torres who covered this story for the NOLA.com / The Times Picayune, and Patrick Madden of WWNO

Our Reveal Local Labs team includes Sumi Aggarwal, Hannah Young, Andrew Donohue, Michael Corey, Diana Montaño and Robert Rosenthal.

Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original Score and Sound Design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda.

Emily Harris edited today’s show, with production help from Najib Aminy.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Found, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: Bethany Gonski knows what it's like to rebuild after a hurricane shuts you down.

 

Bethany Gonski: I remember coming in and everything just covered with slime. I felt more like a general contractor than a principal.

 

Al Letson: She's the principal of St. John Lutheran Elementary, a private religious school in New Orleans. It's been around since the 1800s, but 14 years ago, the school building along with much of New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, so she had to start from scratch.

 

Bethany Gonski: Walking into the 1st grade classroom and all their little paperback books had swollen up with water. I remember a chair that had floated and just kind of tilted and balanced precariously on a shelf in the library. But it was the bottom floor was just total destruction.

 

Al Letson: It turns out, total destruction was not her biggest problem. Volunteers restored the building by the next school year, but the students had disappeared. They spread across the country after Katrina.

 

Bethany Gonski: We did have one little boy who was in Pre-K came back when we reopened.

 

Al Letson: The first year back, St. John Lutheran had just nine students. Then, a politician dangled an opportunity.

 

Bobby Jindal: This is about making sure that every mom and every dad has the chance to make the decision about where their children get to get their education.

 

Al Letson: That's Republican Bobby Jindal who was the governor at the time. He's pitching a voucher program. Vouchers use public money to send kids to private school. This is one way that New Orleans became a giant laboratory for education after Katrina. This biggest experiment has been charter schools. Every single public school in New Orleans is now a charter, which means they're privately run and have less oversight than traditional public schools. Vouchers take privatizing public education one step further by picking up the tab for private school tuition. Jindal promised that vouchers would help lower income kids get a top-notch education.

 

Bobby Jindal: This is making sure that every little boy, every little girl out here has a chance to go to a great school.

 

Al Letson: Bethany Gonski signed right up.

 

Bethany Gonski: It did help us. It was a simpatico relationship. The parents benefited, and we benefited.

 

Al Letson: Now, St. John Lutheran is almost full. Taxpayers cover tuition for nearly three quarters of its students. And Gonski's not sure if the school would survive without vouchers.

 

Bethany Gonski: It would be questionable, yeah.

 

Al Letson: 10 years after Louisiana's program started, almost 7,000 students use vouchers costing Louisiana taxpayers $40 million dollars a year. Later in the show, we're going to hear how Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is trying to expand these programs nationwide. But first, how are they working in Louisiana? To find out, we teamed up with TV station FOX 8 WVUE, Nola.com, The Times-Picayune and public radio station WWNO. They're part of Reveal's Local Labs, our initiatives to work with local newsrooms to tackle investigative questions like this one. Reporter Jess Clark of WWNO gets us started.

 

Jess Clark: Good Morning. [inaudible 00:03:30]. Hi, Demi. On a weekend morning, 9 year old, Demi Martin answers the door to the townhome where she lives with her family. She's in soft pink shorts and a T-shirt, and her hair is still a little disheveled from sleep. How are you, guys?

 

Dominique M.: Good. How you doing?

 

Jess Clark: Good. That's Demi's mom, Dominique Martin. She has a rare Saturday off from her job at Whole Foods, so she's making her kids breakfast, bacon and eggs. As her mother cooks, Demi snuggles down into an overstuffed gray couch to play video games with her six year old brother, Denim.

 

Demi Martin: I'm going to jump on your man. You cheated.

 

Jess Clark: Demi loves dancing, social studies, and is thinking about starting track. She has big expressive eyes, and is about to go into 5th grade.

 

Demi Martin: Everybody think I'm going into 4th grade.

 

Dominique M.: Because you're little.

 

Jess Clark: Dominique gets it. She's short too. Demi may look younger, but she acts older. Dominique has a nickname for her, The Little Mommy.

 

Dominique M.: She keep me on my toes. She's always like, "Hey, mom. Did you remember to do this, or did you get this?" I'm like, "Oh, shoot, I forgot."

 

Jess Clark: What was the last thing she reminded you?

 

Dominique M.: Ah, let me think, let me think. Oh, Denim with his medicine. She was like, "Did you get Denim medicine? You forgot he don't have anymore. You don't want to wait until it's an emergency." I was like, "Okay, mom."

 

Jess Clark: Dominique says she's always been that way, sharp, proactive. When Demi was getting ready to enroll in school, Dominique worried about where to send her.

 

Dominique M.: I saw how smart she was, and I wanted to keep that, and I wanted to help it blossom.

 

Jess Clark: But public schools in New Orleans historically have had a bad reputation. 15 years ago, right before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans graduation rate was just 54%. Dominique left school a few years before that. She and her sister went to their neighborhood school until 9th grade. But for high school, they tested into a public magnet program with kids from all over the city. They quickly realized, their wealthier classmates were much better prepared than they were.

 

Dominique M.: A lot of those kids had already went to private school, so they went to a really good elementary and middle schools. They made us feel like we were behind.

 

Jess Clark: Since the move to charter schools after Katrina, public school graduation rates and test scores are way up. But there is still a lot of dissatisfaction. Parents say the system is hard to navigate. To enroll your kid, you have to enter a lottery for a spot. Families can apply to almost any school, but parents say it's a lot of research to figure out the right one. There are around 80 schools to consider. And although test scores are higher than before, they're still pretty low. The state gives schools letter grades based on standardized test scores from A to F. Dominique looked up those grades by going to the district's parent's resource center. You can also find them online. She figured the grades would help her find a good public school for Demi.

 

Dominique M.: Because, like I said, if they're passing these tests it's like, okay, so these children are learning what they need to learn. At least we know they are getting the concepts.

 

Jess Clark: But it's hard to get into school with an A or B. For one thing, fewer than a quarter score that high, so there aren't that many spots. And some of the A schools have admissions requirements like testing. It's way easier to get into a D or F school since they make up 40% of the district. Parents who have the money can send their kids to private schools, and many do, a full quarter of New Orleans families.

 

Jess Clark: The public schools wind up serving mainly lower income African American families. Dominique supports three children on her salary at Whole Foods, and thought private school was out of reach until she heard about the school voucher program.

 

Dominique M.: My initial thought was, this is great, this is awesome because now our children can get the same education as kids who are more fortunate.

 

Jess Clark: That was the idea behind the state school voucher program. Former Democratic state lawmaker, Anne Duplessis fully supported it from the start. She believed it would help families escape bad public schools.

 

Ann Duplessis: We had families who told me in that early years as we were designing the program, "We're stuck."

 

Jess Clark: Since leaving the legislature, Duplessis has become the head of the Louisiana Federation for Children. That's a branch for a national group founded by Betsy DeVos before she became US Secretary of Education. Duplessis is one of the state's biggest proponents of sending public money to private schools. She says, "Louisiana students needed something new."

 

Ann Duplessis: I realized early on that no matter how many times we try, and legislate something different or throw money at the traditional public schools, it's not going to work.

 

Jess Clark: The way the voucher program is designed, lower income parents enter a lottery to get between $8,000 and $11,000 a year per kid depending on their district. They use the money to pay for private school tuition. Students are eligible if they've attended a poor performing public school with a letter grade of C, D, or F. Kindergartners can get a voucher too even if they've never attended public school.

 

Dominique M.: Well Demi, you wanted turkey bacon?

 

Demi Martin: Yeah.

 

Dominique M.: Oh, I'm sorry.

 

Jess Clark: Dominique scoops the bacon out of the pan onto a paper towel to cool for Denim, and then goes to the fridge to find the turkey bacon for Demi. If only finding a school that worked for her kids was as easy as finding the bacon they liked.

 

Jess Clark: Back when Demi was in kindergarten and Dominique first qualified for her voucher, there were around 25 private schools in New Orleans to choose from. It was overwhelming, but Dominique felt good about having private school options.

 

Dominique M.: I just assumed because you're paying, you get a better education.

 

Jess Clark: But that's not always the case. To make sure the voucher schools provide students with a good education, students who received the vouchers have to take the same standardized tests as they would in public schools. The state uses those test scores to grade the private schools. Voucher advocate Annette Duplessis told my reporting partner Lee Zurik of FOX 8 that parents know their voucher school's letter grades.

 

Ann Duplessis: Every parent knows what their school is rated, right?

 

Lee Z.: Do they?

 

Ann Duplessis: Yes.

 

Lee Z.: Do you think so?

 

Ann Duplessis: Absolutely. I would think so, and today, yes.

 

Jess Clark: But Dominique couldn't find that information.

 

Dominique M.: A lot of the information was unavailable.

 

Jess Clark: It said, unavailable?

 

Dominique M.: Yeah.

 

Jess Clark: She wasn't alone. Lee and I went to five carpool lines at voucher schools to ask parents if they knew what their school was graded.

 

Lee Z.: Do you know what this school is rated by the state?

 

Jess Clark: We got the same response each time.

 

Speaker 9: Not sure.

 

Speaker 10: No.

 

Lee Z.: No.

 

Speaker 10: I don't.

 

Speaker 11: No, I really don't.

 

Lee Z.: They were rated an F last year from the state.

 

Speaker 9: Really?

 

Lee Z.: Yeah.

 

Speaker 9: I didn't know.

 

Lee Z.: Did you know they were given an F by the state.

 

Speaker 11: No, I didn't know that.

 

Lee Z.: Do you know how to find that information?

 

Speaker 12: No, sir.

 

Jess Clark: We learned that parents don't know because the state doesn't publish letter grades for voucher schools. The Department of Education calculates the grades, but keeps them hidden. Without a letter grade, Dominique went by word of mouth recommendations. For kindergarten, Demi went to a small Lutheran school. Dominique says the teachers were nice, but it felt more like childcare than school, so for 1st grade, Dominique signed up Demi to attend a private school called, McMillian Academy.

 

Dominique M.: I had heard great things about McMillian.

 

Jess Clark: Like many New Orleans elementary schools, McMillian had a marching band, which was a draw for Demi. Dominique showed me some Instagram videos from a parade. Demi is wearing a red leotard under a big blue windbreaker. She looks like the tiniest dancer in the whole group.

 

Demi Martin: [inaudible 00:11:47].

 

Jess Clark: What do they do in the band at McMillian?

 

Demi Martin: I was a majorette. I was one of the beavers.

 

Dominique M.: You was not a majorette.

 

Demi Martin: No, I was a dancer.

 

Jess Clark: Demi really liked being a dancer, but Dominique was after academics.

 

Dominique M.: They sold me on what they were going to do for her as far as, oh, hey, we have this program. We're implementing this, we're implementing that. But of course, when I got her into the school it was a whole different story.

 

Jess Clark: Dominique says, the school promised small class sizes, but she remembers Demi being crammed into a classroom with about 30 other 1st graders. Dominique sat in on a few lessons.

 

Dominique M.: I felt like the classroom was so large and it had so many problematic kids in the classroom, so I told the teacher about that and her response was, "Yeah. I mean, when I try to teach the lesson, you know, some kids can't hear because other kids are being problems."

 

Jess Clark: Demi wasn't getting what she needed. She had a lot of trouble with reading.

 

Demi Martin: A Day At The Beach. "It was early Summer and the weather was really hot. Tyler's mom had told him that one Saturday... That on Saturday, they would be going to the beach. Tyler would [crosstalk 00:13:12].

 

Dominique M.: She can read well, but she can't comprehend.

 

Jess Clark: Can you give me an example?

 

Dominique M.: There was a packet that the teacher sent home with various short stories. She would read the short story and at the end you would have to answer the questions. She would read everything fine and then when I said, "Okay, so who's the main character of this story? Who is this story talking about?" She's like, "I don't know." And I'm like, "How do you not know? Didn't you just read the story?" And she was like, "Yeah, I read it, but I don't know what they were talking about."

 

Demi Martin: "The big treat of eating dinner in the... in a restaurant."

 

Jess Clark: Dominique asked McMillian teachers for help. They directed her to a website...

 

Starfall: All right.

 

Jess Clark: ... called, Starfall.

 

Starfall: You know.

 

Jess Clark: It has free exercises that teach kids how to read with phonics.

 

Starfall: An, can, pan, ran, fan.

 

Dominique M.: They were like, "If you go on this, this tool she need, this will teach her how to grasp certain concepts better."

 

Jess Clark: That was the last straw. Demi needed help with reading comprehension. McMillian teachers directed her to a website to help sound out words. This did not feel like the private school experience she was promised. After two years, she decided to find a new school for Demi. With no letter grades to compare, Dominique once again has to go by word of mouth. [song lyrics 00:14:46].

 

Jess Clark: The school she'd really like Demi to go to is Louise McGehee. That's an elite private school in a fancy part of town. [song lyrics 00:15:02]. Those are McGehee students signing the school song in a video posted to the school's Facebook page. Tuition at McGehee costs about $21,000 a year. Dominique has talked with parents who sent their children there, customers she's helped while working at Whole Foods, and they rave about it. But when she looked through the schools available in the voucher program, Louise McGehee wasn't listed. The school doesn't take vouchers, neither do any of the other elite private schools Dominique knows about. She has a gut feeling why.

 

Dominique M.: Because most students that are on the program are kids [inaudible] in poverty, or kids that are less fortunate. I think it's to keep those students out of their schools.

 

Jess Clark: McGehee's administration declined to comment for this story. But national research shows one major reason elite private schools don't join voucher programs is to keep control over who gets in. With McGehee out, Dominique looks into other options.

 

Dominique M.: I had heard some things about St. Rita about they work really good with younger kids.

 

Jess Clark: At this point, Demi is going into 3rd grade. This will be her 3rd private school paid for by vouchers.

 

Dominique M.: I said, okay, we'll give St. Rita a chance.

 

Jess Clark: St. Rita is a Catholic school. It's been around a long time, since 1924. Dominique's family isn't Catholic, but they appreciate the religious practice and sense of community.

 

Dominique M.: I feel like the religion side of it plays a part in her manners as well.

 

Demi Martin: I was eating, and then I forgot that I didn't bless my food, so I told her and my brother to hold my hand, so we could pray over our food.

 

Jess Clark: Catholic education has long been a big thing in New Orleans, mainly for white families, but also for Black middle class families. But enrollment dropped in recent decades. Now, many Catholic schools need students.

 

Speaker 14: So just one minute and everybody quiet.

 

Speaker 15: One minute, and everyone quiet for one minute.

 

Lee Z.: All right.

 

Speaker 15: Thank you.

 

Jess Clark: My colleague, Lee and I, are at the New Orleans Archdiocese Headquarters setting up for an interview with the head of the New Orleans Catholic Schools.

 

Lee Z.: How long have you been superintendent?

 

RaeNell H.: About 19 months, but who's counting.

 

Jess Clark: RaeNell Houston sits at a small table in her office. Little religious figurines stare down at us from a set of built in shelves behind her. Houston believes vouchers have been good for students who participate in the program officially known as the Louisiana Scholarship Program.

 

RaeNell H.: Participation in the scholarship program gives us an opportunity to evangelize and [catocize 00:17:40]. It gives us an opportunity to reach families and children that we might not normally reach.

 

Lee Z.: Does it allow you to keep schools open that would otherwise shut down?

 

RaeNell H.: For schools that are predominately scholarship, I guess you could say that, but that was never the intention of our involvement in the program.

 

Jess Clark: About a third of the Archdiocese's schools participate in the program. Most of those had been losing students before the voucher program came along.

 

Lee Z.: Those schools wouldn't be open if not for the scholarship program.

 

RaeNell H.: That is correct, yes.

 

Jess Clark: Last year, the New Orleans Archdiocese schools took in 19 million dollars from the voucher program. But while vouchers are keeping many Louisiana private schools afloat, we found vouchers are not helping kids do any better academically.

 

Speaker 17: -perfect attendance for our Catholic students because remember if you get perfect attendance for all your testing days [crosstalk 00:18:38].

 

Jess Clark: One windy Spring day, I stopped by a Catholic school where almost all students get a voucher. Only 17% of them perform at grade level. I was talking to parents about the school's test scores when Principal Vicky Homesteader walked up.

 

Vicky H.: What radio station are you from?

 

Jess Clark: I'm with WWNO. I asked her why her school's test scores are so low, nearly 10 percentage points lower than the local public schools. What do you think is going on there?

 

Vicky H.: Well, I think there is a lot of things. First of all, we take in new students every year. When the new students come we don't... They're not coming with all the skills that they need.

 

Jess Clark: Homesteader says the school is trying to bring them up to grade level, but that low income kids have more challenges.

 

Vicky H.: I can't do anything if mom works two jobs and she can't do homework with her son at home every night.

 

Jess Clark: These are the same challenges New Orleans Public Schools are facing. But data from the state shows public schools are doing a much better job than voucher schools of helping individual students catch up. In fact, our analysis found that if you put all the voucher schools together, their students would come in next to last in making progress out of all the districts in the state.

 

Douglas H.: The results are disheartening for sure.

 

Jess Clark: Douglas Harris oversaw research at Tulane University, which found that students who went to private voucher schools didn't do any better than their public school counterparts in English. They didn't go to college at higher rates and they actually lost ground in math compared to students who stayed in public school. That means students may actually be worse off in the voucher schools.

 

Douglas H.: Maybe in the long term they get better, but there is not a lot of evidence at this point that, that's going to yield meaningful improvement for these kids.

 

Jess Clark: Since the state doesn't publish voucher school letter grades for parents, we did. We used the state's formula. About a third of schools taking vouchers aren't required to be graded because they don't have enough voucher students, but for the ones that do get graded, it doesn't look good. Here's Lee reporting on what we learned on FOX 8 when we first published our investigation this Spring.

 

Lee Z.: Last school year, 92% of the schools graded received a D or F, no school graded an A or B.

 

Jess Clark: That means those schools aren't bringing their voucher students up to grade level. We also found that many students are leaving public schools for private ones with lower test scores.

 

Dominique M.: Here Demi.

 

Demi Martin: Okay.

 

Dominique M.: Here Denim.

 

Denim: Okay.

 

Jess Clark: Dominique sets the kid's breakfast plates down on the table. Through our reporting, she learned St. Rita earned a D the year Demi went there. She had no way of knowing that at the time, but she could tell academics weren't up to par. Demi's reading wasn't getting any better, even with Dominique trying to work with her at home. When she asked for help from the teachers, she got a familiar response.

 

Starfall: All right, you know.

 

Jess Clark: "There is this website called, Starfall," they said.

 

Starfall: An, can, pan, ran, fan.

 

Jess Clark: This time, Dominique wasn't going to wait around. Her daughter was going into 4th grade and still behind. Dominique tried a 4th private voucher school, The Good Shepherd. Some of her friends recommended it. The school was in a brand new building. To Dominique, it seemed forward thinking. They talked about data and individualized learning.

 

Dominique M.: I had expectations that, okay, this year is going to be the year I'm going to see something different.

 

Jess Clark: But, The Good Shepherd got a D the year before Demi signed up. That's the latest data available. Of course, Dominique had no way to find that out before.

 

Jess Clark: Voucher advocates say test scores aren't everything. And it's true, parents choose voucher schools for many reasons. Some see private schools as safer than public schools. Some like the faith based approach or the school's history, reputation, or culture. For Dominique, it's about skills. Dominique says, Demi's reading has gotten a little better at The Good Shepherd, but not much.

 

Demi Martin: Do you want me to show you [inaudible] my report card?

 

Dominique M.: Yes.

 

Jess Clark: Demi runs upstairs to get it. Can I see your report card? Is this it?

 

Dominique M.: Yes. See, "Demi needs to be more focused on her work in order to complete her class assignments." That's in her writing class. She had a D, so I said, "Well, how do we fix this?" She said, "Well, I can tell you that this app Starfall is a good app."

 

Starfall: All right. You know.

 

Jess Clark: More of the same. Now Demi is about to go into 5th grade. She's still behind.

 

Dominique M.: I don't know where to go, or who to talk to, to get her the help that she needs.

 

Jess Clark: For now, she's going to keep Demi at The Good Shepherd because even in this mecca of school choice, Dominique feels like she's out of options.

 

Al Letson: Of all the private schools that Demi went to, the one where she joined the marching band stands out for just how much public money it got from voucher students. But at the same time, they just found out the state was investigating that school.

 

Jess Clark: They also found evidence of possible manipulation of the testing.

 

Danatus King: What's that word you said, 'possible.' And when you throw that out there, it's possible, and I'm going to be blunt about it, it's possible that you're a serial killer.

 

Al Letson: That's next on Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: Today, we're looking at school vouchers, a program that spends taxpayer dollars on private school tuition. 16 states and Washington DC offer vouchers. The promise is a better education for low income students. But our reporting partners founds no evidence of that in Louisiana. They did find that the program helps fill seats at private schools. One of the schools is McMillian Academy in New Orleans. The little girl we met earlier in the show, Demi Martin, went to McMillian for 1st and 2nd grade. Her mom, Dominique, didn't like the feel of the place.

 

Dominique M.: McMillian, for me, they were running a school like a business versus a school.

 

Al Letson: The truth is, McMillian Academy is a business. It's a for profit company built off the voucher program. Tuition is about $9,000 a year. The state picks up the tab for every single student. In 2017, that added up to more than $1.3 million dollars. That's more than Louisiana would've paid to keep those students in public schools. Reveal Local Lab partners wanted to find out just where those taxpayer dollars are going. Here's Jess Clark again.

 

Jess Clark: McMillian Academy is run by CEO Linda McMillian. It's a private for profit elementary school, so its records aren't public and that makes the money trail hard to follow. But we used state data to calculate that in 2017, the school took in more than a million dollars in voucher payments. Here is my reporting partner, Lee Zurik of FOX 8 explaining where some of that money went.

 

Lee Z.: As McMillian started receiving more state money, records submitted to the IRS show Linda McMillian received a big raise. In 2017, her salary increased $53,000 to $204,000 a year.

 

Jess Clark: That's about double what a principal in the public school system makes. Meanwhile, Dominique says McMillian Academy required parents to raise money for the school. They had to donate food, sell candy, and go to fundraisers. Remember that all of McMillian parents use vouchers. They're all low income.

 

Jess Clark: Records also show, the school lent $7,000 to a nonprofit childcare center also run by Linda McMillian. But somehow, the nonprofit now owes the school more than $56,000 on that loan. We wanted to ask Linda how that happened and a lot of other things, so we went to the school. At first, she seemed like she would talk to us.

 

Linda M.: You can do the interview with me anytime next week.

 

Jess Clark: But she later declined, so recently I went back to the school to try again. The McMillian complex takes up almost half a city block. It's wedged between an auto parts store and an auto repair shop. It's painted a cheerful yellow trimmed in bright blue and red, a cut out of their mascot, a happy beaver in a prep school uniform, waves down from a high wall.

 

Jess Clark: I'm a reporter with New Orleans Public Radio. I was hoping to speak with either Linda or Harold McMillian.

 

Receptionist: Okay, I'm sorry [crosstalk 00:27:51].

 

Jess Clark: A receptionist wearing a navy McMillian polo shirt said they weren't in. Do you know when they'll be in?

 

Receptionist: Actually, I can take your card.

 

Jess Clark: Okay, great.

 

Receptionist: Okay.

 

Jess Clark: I left my card and I followed up, but I never heard back. Thank you.

 

Receptionist: Okay. You're welcome. Have a nice day.

 

Jess Clark: You too. The business is a family affair. Linda and Harold run the school. One of their sons is a teacher, another is an administrator, and their daughter is the band director. Linda's brother has been the principal. It's the kind of arraignment that's generally not allowed under state ethic laws for public schools. But it's not prohibited at private schools, even where public dollars pay tuition. Those are the unusual business practices our investigation uncovered. But we found a pattern of questionable education practices too.

 

Lee Z.: State records show in the Spring of 2017, the state Department of Education received an anonymous report of test cheating at McMillian.

 

Jess Clark: Lee and I found documents showing state officials questioned students as part of their investigation.

 

Lee Z.: Before investigators asked a question about the test, 21 students voluntarily told investigators they had not cheated. The investigators concluded these students had likely been prepared by McMillian staff to answer that way.

 

Jess Clark: Like, they'd been coached on what to say. When investigators returned the next year, they saw a number of weird things, a test monitor with her eyes closed for 10 minutes, a suspicious number of answers changed from wrong to right, nearly 70% of students were allowed to have the questions read aloud to them due to learning disabilities. That's seven times higher than average in Louisiana. Schools are supposed to document disabilities to get test taking accommodations, but McMillian didn't. The state sanctioned the school. This Fall, they can keep the voucher students they have, but they can't take any new ones.

 

Jess Clark: After our investigations made these cheating allegations public, Louisiana State University decided not to renew an $800,000 grant that had supported low income families in McMillian's childcare program. That's when the McMillian's broke their silence, kind of.

 

Protesters: We love our jobs. We love our kids. We love our jobs. We love our kids. We love our jobs. [crosstalk 00:30:09].

 

Jess Clark: The school staged a protest in downtown New Orleans calling our coverage, "a media lynching of the school." Parents and teachers circled up and held signs that said, "We want the facts," and, "#Fake News." Linda McMillian hovered in the background. When we tried to confront her, she turned away and made for her car. Her lawyer, Danatus King, blocked our path.

 

Danatus King: My job is to make sure that we get to, what's your sign say, facts. That's my job. Get to the facts. The facts are not going to be gotten at standing on this street right now. [crosstalk 00:30:44].

 

Jess Clark: I asked King about the fact that state investigators found evidence of possible cheating by McMillian on state tests?

 

Danatus King: I understand what you said. What's that word you said? "Possible." And when you throw that out there, it's possible, and I'm going to be blunt about it, it's possible that you're a serial killer. It's possible.

 

Jess Clark: But there's no evidence that I'm a serial killer. There is evidence that there was manipulation of test... of the testing.

 

Danatus King: No, no, no. What'd you say earlier? You said, "There is evidence that it's possible," all right, "possible." That's not evidence.

 

Jess Clark: King said he'd sit down and talk with us, but when we followed up, he said, "No comment." Ann Duplessis the former Democratic state lawmaker who helped get the voucher program passed, told us, she's disappointed by the cheating allegations at McMillian. But she says, "The fact that they were caught reflects well on the state's oversight."

 

Ann Duplessis: It is a testament to the accountability measures that we have in place, this program. That the department, we are not waiting five, 10 years to react, right. It's swift.

 

Jess Clark: McMillian may be an extreme example of what can happen when a state education program has minimal oversight. Voucher advocates and private school administrators say the vast majority of schools are following the rules. Voucher critics say those who don't are hurting kids.

 

Andre Perry: Kids aren't just slipping through the cracks because of rules. They are actually falling into dangerous educational situations.

 

Jess Clark: Andre Perry is an education researcher and activist. He's lived in New Orleans and helped manage a charter school network here, and studied the city's education system. He's now a scholar at The Brookings Institution in Washington DC.

 

Andre Perry: I do think that a voucher program does inspire a new crop of educational providers, but it also will invite more nefarious characters who have no interest in educating folks, but they do want easy money.

 

Jess Clark: And it's easy to become a voucher school in Louisiana. The application is 16 pages long with lots of yes or no questions. The state has never turned down a school that's applied. Perry says Louisiana's lax approach extends to other states as well.

 

Andre Perry: This is a problem in other states where vouchers have ballooned, and so this is a national problem.

 

Jess Clark: But politicians are hesitant to put too many restrictions on private voucher schools, even those with low test scores. James Garvey is a member of Louisiana State School Board, which we called, BESE for short. He's up for re-election this Fall.

 

James Garvey: I'm a proponent for parental choice in almost every form, charter schools, vouchers.

 

Jess Clark: Lee and I asked Garvey if given the low test scores and lax approval process, BESE should be doing more on the front end to make sure voucher schools are high quality.

 

James Garvey: The parents are doing the research on whether to send their children or not.

 

Lee Z.: So it's on the parents? It's on the parents?

 

James Garvey: It's a combination of BESE and parents.

 

Lee Z.: But shouldn't BESE be-

 

James Garvey: Be the only? No. [crosstalk 00:33:56]. We should not be the only.

 

Lee Z.: But shouldn't BESE be making sure that the schools who are participating in the program are good schools?

 

James Garvey: I would say that there should be some steps in that direction, yes.

 

Jess Clark: Given all that you've heard about Louisiana's voucher program, you may be surprised to learn that it has more regulations than many other states. 16 states plus DC allow vouchers. But Louisiana and Indiana are the only ones that can punish voucher schools for low test scores. In both states, schools with failing scores can't accept new voucher students, but they can keep the voucher students they already have, even if those students aren't succeeding academically.

 

Al Letson: Thanks to Jess Clark of WWNO and Lee Zurik of FOX 8 WVUE TV for that story. They collaborated with Nola.com The Times-Picayune on this investigation as a part of Reveal Local Labs.

 

Al Letson: After their first stories aired earlier this year, Louisiana's Democratic Governor John Bell Edwards promised to overhaul the voucher program. He says, his top priority is to move students out of schools that earn an F. But he doesn't want to end the voucher program because surveys show parents really like it, but do they know what they're signing up for?

 

Jarvis DeBerry: Do you support a program that lets a child go from a C public school to a D or F private school?

 

Al Letson: That's next on Reveal.

 

Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: I want to turn to a long time observer of politics in education in Louisiana now to put some context around the problem of school vouchers we've heard about.

 

Jarvis DeBerry: This is Jarvis DeBerry.

 

Al Letson: Jarvis worked at Nola.com The Times-Picayune until a couple of months ago when the paper was bought by The New Orleans Advocate. He spent 22 years in New Orleans. In that time in those 22 years, you've had a bird's eye view into how education works in Louisiana. What's the trend that you've been seeing?

 

Jarvis DeBerry: That's a very good question. I think a lot of the trend has been talking around the issue and not getting to the roots of the problem. I think the problems are often poverty and torn up and dysfunctional neighborhoods.

 

Al Letson: Can you tell me just a little bit about your own background? Where'd you grow up? What kind of school did you go to?

 

Jarvis DeBerry: It really has shaped how I think about this particular issue. I grew up in small town Mississippi, Holly Springs, Mississippi. If you grew up in Mississippi you have to tell people where you're near. It's about half hour North of Oxford and about 35 minutes, or so from Memphis, a small town about 7 or 8,000 people. When I was there it was almost completely and utterly Black. There were about enough white people for me to count on one hand basically.

 

Al Letson: Jarvis went to public school, but he had options. For one, there was a small private Catholic school in town.

 

Jarvis DeBerry: When I was about 6th or 7th grade, my mother asked me if I wanted to go to the Catholic school? I told him I didn't want to. This assumption was that the Catholic school was better, but whenever I saw any of their students, I didn't feel like they had learned anything differently or more than I had learned, and so I've always been struck by this belief that hey, it's got to be better, right? It's private. The idea that if you can exclude a certain group of people, or that you can make something more exclusive and less open then it becomes better is an idea that you see everywhere.

 

Al Letson: The context in New Orleans is that the people that are impoverished primarily, not all, but primarily you're talking about African American neighborhoods.

 

Jarvis DeBerry: Yes.

 

Al Letson: And private school systems, their origins come from segregation and from white families not wanting their children to have to go to school with Black kids.

 

Jarvis DeBerry: That's generally true for most of the South. I would like to make the argument that people in New Orleans make that this is a deeply Catholic city. And because it's so deeply Catholic you have a lot of people who lean toward Catholic education out of that particular devotion. I would say that in most parts of the South, yes, for sure, the private school system is a direct and not even a subtle correlation to segregation. New Orleans is a bit different though. Although, I will acknowledge that, yeah, I do think that race has a humongous part in this discussion. I often cringe when I hear some white parents say that, "Oh, there are not enough A rated schools in New Orleans for their child," for example. There are at least three A schools that I can name in the city of New Orleans that are 98% Black, and I never hear any white parents saying, oh, I want to send my child to that school.

 

Al Letson: He says the biggest problem with the voucher program has always been accountability like declaring it successful based on the surveys of parents who say they really like it.

 

Jarvis DeBerry: The whole argument was that parents themselves were the best accountability system. Now, I think there are multiple things wrong with that argument. Firstly, the tax dollars that are paying for this are not just coming from parents. All of us have a right to know and to demand that our tax dollars be spent wisely. Secondly, parents don't always choose a school based on the academic performance of that school.

 

Jarvis DeBerry: But at the end of the day, the residents of Louisiana were promised that the children who went to these schools were going to get a better education, so to me it doesn't matter if the parents like it more than they like the old public school. It doesn't matter if they think that things ae better at this particular private school.

 

Jarvis DeBerry: The promise that was made was that the education was going to be better, the children were going to learn more. And if they are not getting a better education then I'm sorry, I'm not wanting to support a parent's desire just to have the status of sending their kid to a private education. And we're not, I'm not, the society is not getting anything out of that.

 

Al Letson: It's interesting that right as this investigation was happening, Betsy DeVos the US Education Secretary criticized Louisiana's voucher program for not being well conceived.

 

Betsy DeVos: It has discouraged many schools from participating in it and in fact, has encouraged some schools that probably would have not been parents' first choices if they'd been given a full range of choices.

 

Al Letson: But she's a huge backer of vouchers and other school choice programs, and her organizations applauded Louisiana's vouchers when it was set up, so what do you make of her comments now?

 

Jarvis DeBerry: Well, nothing could be more damning than DeVos herself saying that. Hey, if I say that I can just get dismissed as some crazy liberal, right. But if she says it, I think it carries a lot more weight and impact.

 

Al Letson: Jarvis, thanks so much for talking to me.

 

Jarvis DeBerry: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

 

Al Letson: Jarvis DeBerry was the deputy opinion editor for Nola.com The Times-Picayune until recently. He's moving to Ohio to work his magic for cleveland.com.

 

Al Letson: Betsy DeVos may have some criticism of Louisiana's voucher program, but she's going full steam ahead with her dream to privatize public education. She's been working on it for decades. Reveal's Emily Harris tracked down tapes of a private meeting from nearly 20 years ago where DeVos shares her vision.

 

Emily Harris: In 2001, at an invitation only gathering for wealthy Christian conservatives...

 

Speaker 30: We are so glad to have Dick and Betsy DeVos with us tonight.

 

Emily Harris: Billionaires Betsy DeVos and her husband were featured guests. They're in private among friends at a luxury resort outside Phoenix. DeVos spoke candidly, sharing her belief that public education dollars should fund many options including private religious schools. The moderator asked, "Why bother trying to transfer public money to private schools?"

 

Speaker 30: Wouldn't it have been easier to simply fund Christian private schools and be done with it? Just build up [crosstalk] great Christian private schools.

 

Speaker 31: Absolutely.

 

Betsy DeVos: There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education. We could give every single penny we had, everybody in this room could give every single penny that they had, and it wouldn't begin to touch what is currently spent on education every year in this country.

 

Emily Harris: Now DeVos is in charge of federal education spending and her budget this year includes a five billion dollar voucher proposal called, Education Freedom Scholarships. It's a little different from what we heard about in Louisiana.

 

Betsy DeVos: Education Freedom Scholarships aren't only for students who want to attend private schools.

 

Emily Harris: She was speaking at a congressional hearing in April.

 

Betsy DeVos: In fact, some states may choose to design scholarships for public school options such as apprenticeships or transportation to a different public school.

 

Emily Harris: It all sure sounded like a voucher program to Democratic Representative Marcia Fudge.

 

Marcia Fudge: By any other name, it is a voucher, and it is something to benefit the rich. I just wish that at some point we would just be honest with what we are doing, and we would just tell the American people that what we are doing with this is creating a shell game to fund private and religious schools and their providers using taxpayers as the middleman. That is what we're doing.

 

Emily Harris: The program would be funded in a roundabout way. People or corporations give money to foundations. Those foundations make grants to students who use the money to pay for private school tuition or other educational programs. Then the person who made the initial donation gets all their money back in a tax credit. That means the federal government lets them subtract the whole amount from their tax bill. The idea of the federal government paying for vouchers is very exciting to big backers.

 

John Schilling: It's bold because this has never been tried before. [crosstalk 00:45:19].

 

Emily Harris: John Schiling is President of the American Federation for Children. Betsy DeVos founded the group and she ran it until she became education secretary.

 

John Schilling: It is a proposal that is respectful of states' rights and state's role in K-12 education.

 

Emily Harris: The idea of vouchers is hardly new. Joanne Barkan spent the last decade writing about school reform and gave me a brief history.

 

Joanne Barkan: One key moment is 1955.

 

Emily Harris: 1955?

 

Joanne Barkan: Yes.

 

Emily Harris: That's a long time ago.

 

Joanne Barkan: Yeah. In 1955, Milton Friedman who is the guru of free market capitalism wrote an essay.

 

Emily Harris: Here is a recording of Friedman, much later, but reiterating the same core idea.

 

Milton F.: Government monopolies share one characteristic. They produce a low quality product at a high cost. That's just as true of government monopolies in the United States as it was of government monopolies in Soviet Union. It's the nature of the beast.

 

Joanne Barkan: He argued that the government at any level has no role to play at all in a free enterprise system in terms of running schools, so that's where the idea began. It went nowhere, absolutely nowhere until around 1980, the year that Ronald Reagan was elected. Reagan actually proposed voucher programs.

 

Emily Harris: Like a national voucher program?

 

Joanne Barkan: Well, yeah, federally funded voucher programs. The policy went nowhere because at that point, for most Americans, the idea of publicly funded private schools just sounded almost anti-American.

 

Emily Harris: But Schiling says freedom and choice, the language of voucher supporters, are very American.

 

John Schilling: We believe that the public is very supportive of investment in K-12 education, and all of the polling supports that.

 

Emily Harris: I told him about Dominique Martin in New Orleans who wanted to send her daughter, Demi to a school that cost more than $20,000. That school doesn't take vouchers, neither do many other elite private schools around the country.

 

John Schilling: The reason that they typically give for not participating is they don't want to be subjected to invasive regulation and government regulation.

 

Emily Harris: What would those be?

 

John Schilling: Well, taking the state test is a big one because a lot of private schools don't want to be subjected to taking the state test because the state test is not written to their curriculum, and it puts their students at a disadvantage.

 

Emily Harris: I mean they don't want to lose control over their admission process.

 

John Schilling: Sure. Of course, it's important. They're private schools and private schools ought to be able to retain autonomy as private schools without the government dictate everything they should be doing.

 

Emily Harris: I asked Joanne Barkan if more schools taking vouchers would help. Would you advocate that voucher programs have more money and more tuition money available to people, so that they could access a $40,000 a year school?

 

Joanne Barkan: Doesn't it make a lot more sense to use that money, which would be a huge amount of money just to make sure that every public school is really an excellent school? The Reform Movement has always argued, give parents choice. Get low income kids out of failing schools and they will be able to get a good education and enter the middle class. It's backwards. It assumes that good education creates the middle class and it's just the opposite. It's the middle class that has, and always will, create good schools because they demand it.

 

Al Letson: That story was reported by Reveal's Emily Harris who also edited today's show. Bruce Wilson provided research help for that story. For additional stories on Louisiana's voucher program, go to revealnews.org.

 

Al Letson: Special thanks to the many people who worked on this week's show as part of Reveal Local Labs. From WWNO Patrick Madden and [Tigan Wimblen 00:49:46], Lee Zurik and Cody [Lilic] of FOX 8 WVUE, and Kim Chatelain and Manuel Torres from The Times-Picayune Nola.com. Thanks also to the Local Labs team here at Reveal, Sumi Aggarwal, Hannah Young, Andy Donohue, Michael Corey, Diana Montano, Katherine Mieszkowski and Robert Rosie Rosenthal.

 

Al Letson: Our associate producer today was Najib Aminy. Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado Lightning.

 

Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics in Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 36: From PRX.