This story was produced by FOX8 WVUE, | The Times-Picayune and WWNO New Orleans Public Radio as part of Reveal’s Local Labs initiative, which supports lasting investigative reporting collaborations in communities across the United States.

In the nearly three centuries since 12 Ursuline nuns from France began a girls school in 1727, Catholic schools have become a fixture in New Orleans. Expanding as the metro area grew, the archdiocese’s enrollment peaked at 63,000 students in the 1960s. A steady decline has cut that number nearly by half, threatening one of the country’s largest parochial education networks.

But a decade ago, not long after Hurricane Katrina plunged the city’s population, archdiocese school officials found a way to slow down their attrition: tapping into Gov. Bobby Jindal’s pilot program to let parents use state tax dollars to pay tuition at nonpublic schools in the city.

Within months of the voucher program’s launch in 2008, students using state money began enrolling in Catholic schools. When Jindal expanded the Louisiana Scholarship Program statewide in 2012, the Archdiocese of New Orleans remained its biggest client. Last school year, archdiocese schools took in $19 million in public money to enroll about 3,700 voucher students, more than half of the program’s total, according to an examination by a consortium of local and national news organizations.

The public money came even as most archdiocese schools received D and F grades based on an analysis of voucher student testing by | The Times-Picayune, WVUE Fox 8 News, WWNO and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. Two-thirds of all students in the voucher system statewide attended private and parochial schools where they performed at a D or F level last school year, the news organizations found.

Credit: Graphic by Emma Scott, | The Times-Picayune

Twenty-nine of the 80 schools under the jurisdiction of the archdiocese participate in the Louisiana Scholarship Program. In 17 of the participating schools, according to state records, most students attend on taxpayer-funded vouchers. Yet reporters found only four archdiocese schools in which voucher students demonstrated year-to-year improvement above the state average.

Last year, the state sanctioned seven archdiocese schools for low performance. Under the lax rules of the voucher program, that just meant they could not take additional voucher students. Students are eligible for a voucher if their public school is graded C, D or F, or if they are enrolling in kindergarten. In only one archdiocese school, St. Leo the Great, did voucher students perform at a C level on the state school rating system. Not a single archdiocese school, or any school in the program statewide, earned an A or B.

All this has turned the voucher program into a lifeline for archdiocese schools, placing them at the center of a controversy among education leaders as to the effectiveness of a $40 million-a-year program that has little oversight and accountability.

The voucher program “is an absolute drain on public school systems,” said Michael Dirmann, who is in his 17th year as a member of the St. Tammany Parish School Board. “These students for the most part are not getting a better education based on some of the schools they are attending. Public education is about fixing education in this state for everyone, not just a few.”

Andre Perry, a fellow at The Brookings Institution and formerly the associate director for education initiatives at Loyola University’s Institute for Quality and Equity in Education, also took issue with the program.

“I don’t believe in legislators handing out political favors to faith-based organizations as a whole,” he said. “That’s essentially what the voucher program did for many Catholic schools.”

Dr. RaeNell Houston, superintendent of archdiocese schools, acknowledged the scholarship program has helped keep some Catholic schools open, although she said that’s not why the archdiocese got involved. She said she doesn’t see the high percentages of voucher students in some Catholic schools as a negative.

“Participating in the scholarship program gives us an opportunity to evangelize and Catholicize,” she said. “It gives us a chance to reach families and children we don’t normally reach.”

RaeNell Houston, superintendent of the Archdiocese of New Orleans schools, in July 2017. Credit: Photo by Frankie Prijatel, | The Times-Picayune

Houston said she is not happy with the test scores at the voucher schools in her system, saying there is much room for improvement. However, she said in many cases the voucher students provide a difficult challenge for Catholic school educators. “We’re not in the business of housing students in failing schools,” she said. “That’s not our goal.”

Because they come from low-performing public schools, some of the voucher students entering archdiocese schools are two or three years behind their grade level, and Catholic educators have little time to get them up to speed before the LEAP tests are given in April, Houston said. The test is the same administered to all public school and voucher students in Louisiana.

Houston said the archdiocese’s decentralized approach to education also impacts how students do on the state’s test. Every Catholic school is managed separately to cater to its community’s needs, setting some of its own policies, including the sequencing of teaching.

“That has been done purposefully because we serve a very diverse population that includes eight civil parishes, urban areas and inner cities, suburban areas, rural, etc. So, having the autonomy to choose programming and curriculum that meets the needs of a specific population is a positive thing, but it also limits you in some ways,” she said.

Because archdiocese schools do not follow a prescribed curriculum, they provide different levels of preparedness when it comes to assessment tests, whereas public schools tend to gear their study toward the LEAP, she said.

“We don’t have that 100 percent alignment that the public schools do and that plays a role in how our students perform,” she said. “So, we do not teach kids for the LEAP test. The LEAP test is one piece of the assessment puzzle for us. In public schools, it is the assessment.”

Credit: Graphic by Emma Scott, | The Times-Picayune

Reporters, however, found several Catholic schools that require mandatory tutoring for the LEAP test, or that offer parents special programs to prepare for it, indicating some schools do try to teach students for the test.

A four-year study commissioned by the state and conducted by University of Arkansas researchers found that voucher students performed lower than a control group on the state’s tests. One of the study’s authors said one explanation could be public school curricula.

“It’s possible that some of the negative test score effect is because some of the private school students just haven’t gotten to the material that the public school students have and are being tested on,” said Patrick J. Wolf, one of the researchers and a professor of education policy.

Survey after survey suggests that most parents appear satisfied with the Louisiana Scholarship Program. Houston said she doesn’t expect lawmakers to increase the voucher program’s budget to allow for more students. But she hopes that popularity will be enough to keep the voucher money flowing. In 2017, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who opposed vouchers as a legislator, tried to shrink the program so it would no longer apply to children in kindergarten in neighborhoods where public schools are not failing. The legislation died in a Senate committee.

The program has given a substantial boost to the archdiocese at a challenging time for Catholic schools, not only in New Orleans, but across the United States. More than 5.2 million students attended about 13,000 Catholic schools in the 1960s. This school year, only 1.8 million students enrolled in roughly 6,300 schools, according to the National Catholic School Association.

In New Orleans, enrollment in archdiocese schools fell from around 51,000 in 1994 to just under 35,000 for the current school year, according to archdiocese figures. The most precipitous drop came thanks to Hurricane Katrina. Between 2004 and 2006, the archdiocese lost about 10,000 students.

As the Catholic Church grapples with a widespread clergy abuse scandal and with more nonpublic school options available to parents, experts have said it remains very unlikely archdiocese schools will ever approach their peak enrollment of the 1960s.

Although the voucher program has slowed down the enrollment decline, it has not stopped it. The archdiocese announced in January that historic St. Peter Claver, a school in the Treme neighborhood that had 132 voucher students last school year, will close at the end of the current academic year. State records show the nearly 100-year-old elementary has been sanctioned five of the past seven years because of low LEAP scores. The school was also suffering from financial problems and declining enrollment, Houston said at the time of the announcement.

Houston said families would have a very hard time if the voucher program went away.

“When you talk to families and children who tell you their stories, their dreams and their narratives as to why this program matters to them, and how it has changed their lives or their families, how it means literally the difference between life and death for some people and children of some families, that makes it all worth it,” she said.

Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project, a nonprofit that monitors and reports on public policy and how it affects low-income families, said he is surprised at how relatively few students – 1 percent of the state’s 700,000 students – are actually involved in the voucher program.

“If you would have told me in 2012 that there were going to be 7,000 students in this program with so many other families eligible, I would not have believed that,” Moller said. “It seemed like a lot of sound and fury but instead of voting with their feet, a lot of families are voting with their butts and they’ve decided to stay put and stay invested in public schools.”

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