Uncertain How Many LA Students Will Get Vouchers Next Year

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Parents relying on Louisiana's voucher program to put their children through private schools are in the same predicament as others who depend on state services, uncertain where next year's budget will leave them.

         The $36 million for vouchers included in the budget proposal for the financial year that begins July 1 may — or may not — fully cover the costs of all students currently in the program. That's the inexact assessment of the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Office, and that was the news that Superintendent of Education John White delivered to state senators.

         The issue is an annual flashpoint in Louisiana's education debate, but this time the question marks are driven as much by the state's deep budget problems as philosophical disputes.

         About 7,100 students from low- to moderate-income families are receiving taxpayer-financed tuition from the Louisiana Scholarship Program to attend 119 private and parochial schools. The program received $42 million this year.

         The House-approved budget proposal includes $36 million for the program in the upcoming 2016-17 school year.

         It "could potentially mean that we have enough money for the current kids, or it could not mean that. It just depends on how many kids come back and we just don't know," White told the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.

         A budget analysis from the Legislative Fiscal Office agrees, citing statistics that about 20 percent of students leave the program each year and 26 percent of the participating schools won't take new students next year.

         "It is very possible that the number of participants in the program will remain sufficiently low enough to maintain the seats for remaining students at the current tuition rate," the fiscal office wrote.

         Just what the $6 million cut would mean has become a dispute between Gov. John Bel Edwards, a voucher critic, and program supporters.

         The Democratic governor said the proposed reduction wouldn't remove students currently receiving vouchers, but would stop program growth. He said every year the program is allocated more money than it spends and any reduction would lessen the tuition payment to schools, not force out students.

         The average tuition cost per voucher student has grown 12 percent over three years, compared to 3 percent for public schools, the fiscal office analysis shows. And the voucher program costs the state more per student.

         It's not certain the law allows tuition payment reductions as Edwards described. White said he believes the state can't cut tuition rates without schools' permission.

         Meanwhile, pro-voucher group Louisiana Federation for Children, which aired TV ads criticizing Edwards for the proposed cut, claimed the drop in voucher financing next year would boot 1,000 students from the program — a claim neither the Legislative Fiscal Office nor the education department corroborates.

         The situation won't be cleared up until the budget is passed and the voucher enrollment process wraps up in June. What is clear now is that $36 million wouldn't allow new students to be added.

         White, a voucher supporter, said $42 million is the minimum needed to pay for existing students and new students that applied and match with schools.

         "I would ask that the Legislature honor all families' choices, and $36 million is not going to get us there," he said.

         Edwards said it's only appropriate the voucher program takes a cut like other education programs, with the state facing a $600 million budget shortfall.

         – by AP Reporter Melinda Deslatte



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