School Voucher Nightmare: Louisiana ‘Choice’ Scheme Is Rife With Shoddy Bookkeeping

It’s safe to say Louisiana is the worst state in the country right now when it comes to church-state separation issues.

Readers of this blog know Americans United has long been opposed to school vouchers. If for some reason you’re still not convinced of the negatives that accompany so-called “educational choice” ventures, consider the myriad problems that have recently come to light within Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s voucher scheme.

Independent audits released at the end of June found that of 117 schools participating in the Louisiana Scholarship Program, just one violated the program’s requirements for how schools may use their allotted taxpayer money. That’s how Louisiana Education Superintendent John White spun it, anyway.

But there’s something White failed to mention: The state actually has no idea how almost all of these participating schools are spending their voucher money, which is intended only for educational purposes, because almost none have separate accounts for voucher funds even though they are required to do so.

An in-depth reading of the two audits by blogger Lamar White, Jr., a law student at Southern Methodist University, revealed that most of the 117 schools could not be audited because they did not have the required separate accounts. One review checked into 52 schools, and just two of those had separate accounts. Another investigation looked into 66, many of which were repeats from the other study, and just one of those kept the mandated separate account. 

As the Associated Press noted, the spending by just five schools participating in the program could actually be accounted for. Several schools also refused to answer questions about their accounting practices, the AP’s Melinda Deslatte reported.

One of the few schools that was scrutinized, however, grabbed the headlines. As it turns out, the New Living Word School in Ruston overcharged the state by quite a bit. The AP said for 2012-2013 NLWS charged the state $6,300 for each of its 93 voucher students but charged just $530 per person for its 109 non-voucher students.

So it seems state money was keeping the lights on at this school. And what, exactly, was this money being used for? Not education.

Robert Mann, a professor at Louisiana State University, said in a column for the New Orleans Times-Picayune that the “school” doesn’t have enough computers, has no real classrooms, and employs uncertified teachers who simply stick students in front of DVDs for instruction.

So what was happening with that taxpayer money? One of the audits showed New Living Word was funneling money to its sponsoring church, handing over $40,235 to the sectarian organization for facilities costs and bus rentals.

This is certainly no surprise, and without knowing how most of the voucher largess is being spent, who can say how much taxpayer money is being used for direct subsidies of religious activities?

All told, the school has received $600,000 from the state of Louisiana and overcharged by $378,000, which it has been told to return. The school has also been booted from the voucher program.

New Living Word Principal Jerry Baldwin, who is also the pastor of the church, told the AP: “The findings are wrong. They're absurd. They're ridiculous. They're illogical. And we don't agree with them at all.”

It’s pretty hard to argue with the facts here, and it’s hard to imagine how this “school” could ever justify its participation in the Louisiana Scholarship Program. But sadly this isn’t even the first time the school has faced scrutiny, coming under fire last year for all sorts of shortcomings. Fortunately the audit was the final straw.

SMU law student White saw the irony in the situation, pointing out that the school wouldn’t have been caught if it had just skirted the rules like most of the other participants in the voucher program.

“The only reason that New Living Word School got ‘caught’ misappropriating funds are because it was one of the [few] schools that actually used a separate account for its voucher money,” he said.

To make matters worse, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that the legislature approved a state budget in early June that will double the number of voucher program participants, accommodating 4,000 new students.

Add this voucher scandal to a slew of other problems in Louisiana, most recently U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s (D) bill that would make sure a group that pressures children to pray remains eligible for federal funding.

There was also a recent scheme sponsored by Rep. Katrina Jackson (D-Monroe) and signed into law by Republican Gov. Jindal that could lead to coercive prayer in public schools.

When you add that all up, it’s safe to say Louisiana is the worst state in the country right now when it comes to church-state separation issues.

But at least that means things can only get better from here, right? Let’s hope so.