Audit paints partial picture of voucher program

by Heather Miller

Of the more than 1,600 students enrolled in New Orleans private schools last year through the state's voucher program, only four were children with special needs.

Seven New Orleans private schools that participated in the state's private school voucher program for the 2010-2011 school year were overpaid a combined $25,000 by the state, according to the most recent independent audit on nonpublic school allocations. But the overpayments to private schools could be higher than what the audit reports, as the auditing firm was not instructed by the state to verify the attendance of all students in the program.

The state-run voucher program, which funded private school tuitions for more than 1,600 low-income students in New Orleans last year, has come under the limelight in recent weeks as Gov. Bobby Jindal pushes for a statewide expansion that would make 380,000 students eligible to attend private schools with public money.

As The Independent reports in this week's cover story, "Incomplete," a review of the program reveals problems with the program's monitoring practices for the students it serves and also confirms that much of the data related to program enrollment and standardized testing for the voucher students are inaccurate.

Two weeks into a public records battle with the state Department of Education, The Independent learned that the payments to private schools are tracked through an independent audit, which verifies attendance records at each of the private schools and determines whether the schools are receiving what they are owed.

When The Ind asked for a copy, state Department of Education spokeswoman Rene Greer sent The Independent a partial document titled "Monitoring Procedures," a four-page attachment that included pages 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the audit. The missing pages were sent to The Ind two days later and only after the newspaper specified that the entire document should be sent. The audit was not listed among the list of other DOE audit reports found on the Legislative Auditor's website.

The report, prepared by accounting firm Provost, Salter, Harper and Alford, points out (in the missing pages) that the findings do not represent a complete audit of the program's finances. The audit is narrow in scope and only details a random selection of the students for which private schools are billing the state.

"Had we performed additional procedures, other matters might have come to our attention that would have been reported to you," the audit report states.

If a private school in New Orleans enrolled more than five students, the state instructed the auditor to select a random sample of 10 percent of total enrollment or a minimum of five students, whichever is higher. It's worth noting that two private schools in the program last year accepted more than 100 students, with two others taking more than 150 students and one enrolling a whopping 294 voucher students.

Of the random students selected, the latest audit finds that the state was overbilled more than $25,000 from seven schools. Greer says the schools are required to repay the money to the state.

The report also reveals that out of more than 1,600 students in the program last year, only four were special education students, which further supports a Feb. 4 analysis from The Times-Picayune noting that the two private schools in New Orleans with the highest test scores do not enroll children with special needs, "nor are they required to" as public schools are. State Superintendent John White has repeatedly said that private schools accepting voucher money cannot be selective in their admissions.

Click here for the full Times-Pic report.

Read The Independent's cover story and accompanying editorial on the voucher program here.