Can private school voucher program work in Texas?

January 9, 2013 8:43:13 PM PST
State lawmakers will be looking at a plan that could give you more options when it comes to where your children go to school. Private schools could get tax dollars. A similar plan is already in place in Louisiana.

What the students get at New Orleans' Good Shepherd School is what we all want for our kids: small classes, excited teachers, high marks on state tests and virtually no tuition at the private school.

Good Shepherd is part of Louisiana's answer to chronically failing public schools. For Cornel Harris' mother, Laeisha Burras, it was a lifeline.

"It's a horrible feeling, it's a very horrible feeling to know your son is going to a school where he's not really learning because you know it's a failing school," she said.

But this year, Louisiana is paying Harris' private school tuition. More than 5,000 Louisianans get the same taxpayer-funded voucher.

Louisiana is planning for thousands more.

"Thank god for this program," Burras said.

"Thirty years of nothing but talk and nobody did nothing -- time to do something," Good Shepherd School President Ronnie Briggs said.

Briggs was recently highlighted by the state to show the promise of school reform, that private schools can educate better and more nimbly, while saving the state money.

"What if someone told you, look you can only go to the corner grocery store that you live a block from, and that grocery store that you went to every week the bread was stale, the meat was rotten -- you wouldn't like that very much, would you? That's literally what they had. They got choice now," Briggs said.

"In order for you to be good, something else has to be bad. Let's stop doing that," said Dr. Bernard Taylor, superintendent of the East Baton Rouge Parish Public Schools, Louisiana's second-largest school district.

"In that equation, you are the something bad," we asked.

"Well, and we're not," he replied.

The district was graded "D" by the state of Louisiana, meaning almost all of Taylor's students could be eligible for vouchers.

In just the first year of the program, his district lost 861 of its best students to private schools, paid for with vouchers that came from his state aid. It cost his district $4.6 million, and if the program grows, it could be millions more.

"Choice has consequences," Taylor said. "At some point, we're going to be at a tipping point. We're going to tip financially, and at that point, what does that mean? What is the plan then for educating those children?"

But more than money, Taylor is worried about who is left behind in traditional public schools -- students who are harder to teach, have more special needs and less parental involvement.

"I think I hear you saying that you're concerned that big public school systems become the land of broken toys," we told Taylor.

"Well basically yes, because let's face it, there are some children who are easier to serve than others," he replied.

At Good Shepherd, Briggs says scores are up because they've made changes that public schools -- faced with cumbersome bureaucracy -- haven't, can't or just won't make. They have a longer school day, a longer school year, Saturday sessions and mandatory service hours for parents.

And the best part for a taxpayer...

"You're saving money. You're saving $18 million a year, to the governor's office says," Briggs said.

But is it saving money or just shifting the cost? For every $8,000 voucher, the school has to raise another $6,000 privately for every student just to pay the bills. It's a problem Texas charters and private schools would face, too.