Voucher changes under discussion

Despite insisting that a challenge to Louisiana’s expanded voucher law will fail, state Superintendent of Education John White said Thursday he has talked with plaintiffs in the lawsuit about changing the way the program is financed.

But Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, which is one of the plaintiffs, said his group remains opposed to any funding method that results in school aid dollars going to students attending private or parochial schools.

Richard said his organization is “going to move forward with the litigation.”

The issue surfaced during an hour-long briefing that White held on details of the annual public school funding request that will be decided by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on March 8.

The proposal, which is called the Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP, is the key funding mechanism for 712,000 public school students.

The plan would freeze state aid for public school students for the fifth year in a row except to provide financing for additional students.

However, the future of state aid for vouchers — they are payments for some students to attend private and parochial schools — was one of the key topics during the briefing.

The Legislature last year approved a bill that expanded the state’s voucher program statewide.

About 5,000 students who attended C, D and F public schools, and who met income rules, are using the aid to attend private and parochial schools.

But 19th Judicial District Judge Tim Kelley, of Baton Rouge, ruled on Nov. 30 that the law represented an unconstitutional diversion of state dollars designed for public schools. Attorneys for the state appealed the ruling, which is set for a hearing in the state Supreme Court on March 19.

White told reporters that he has met with LSBA officials about making changes in how voucher students are financed, which could dampen the impact of any court ruling.

Under current rules, dollars formerly reserved for public schools are sent directly to private and parochial schools for vouchers, which are supposed to pay for tuition and mandatory fees.

Under White’s proposal, school districts would collect those state and local education dollars, just as they would for students attending traditional public schools.

However, officials of those districts would have to agree to use part of the money for those students authorized to get vouchers.

Local school districts could keep the difference rather than sharing the savings with the state, which is required now.

White said that would mean significant savings for local school districts since vouchers cost an average of $5,100 per year compared with about $8,500 to attend a public school.

“It is a good deal for school boards and it would help ease the anxiety of parents,” he said, a reference to mothers, fathers and guardians of voucher students unclear about the future of the program.

“It seems like a win-win,” White said.

But Richard, whose group represents 645 local board members statewide, said the proposal has problems. “We are going to move forward with the litigation because we think Judge Kelley’s rationale was clearly in alignment with the constitution,” he said.

“And no system of funding that diverts money from the MFP to private entities is in the best interests of public school students at this point in time,” Richard said.

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers, another plaintiff in the voucher challenge, also criticized White’s plan. “This is a sad attempt to sidestep a clear constitutional mandate, and we hope that the Legislature does not fall into the trap,” LFT President Steve Monaghan said in a prepared statement.

BESE’s funding request, if approved as outlined by White, would total $3.46 billion, up from $3.42 billion in the current school year.

The panel’s proposal will be sent to the Legislature, which begins the 2013 regular session on April 8.

Lawmakers can only accept or reject the plan but cannot change it.

The current voucher program costs about $22 million per year.