State education officials, who were grilled about last week’s launch of Louisiana’s expanded voucher program, said the schools face additional scrutiny before student assignments are finalized.
The state Department of Education made the announcement just hours after state Superintendent of Education John White was questioned and criticized by a state Senate committee.
White announced last week that 124 private and parochial schools have agreed to accept low- and middle-income students, with financing through state subsidies that backers call scholarships and which opponents call vouchers.
The list includes classroom slots for about 5,100 students statewide, including about 1,100 students in the Baton Rouge area.
Roughly 2,000 students are expected to apply by the June 29 deadline.
Students have to meet income rules, and be attending public schools rated “C,” “D” or “F” by the state to qualify for the vouchers.
The program came under the microscope after a news story said a church-affiliated school in north Louisiana with 122 students was approved to receive 315 voucher students amid questions on whether it has adequate space and teachers.
The focus of concerns, New Living Word School in Ruston, stands to collect nearly $2.7 million in state school dollars if all 315 students are approved for vouchers.
In addition, tuition will total $8,500 per student, which is just under the state’s maximum allowable reimbursement and well over the $6,100 average tuition for participating schools.
The school is in Lincoln Parish, where 57 percent of public school students attend public schools rated “C,” “D” or “F.”
White, who was undergoing a confirmation hearing in the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday, faced a string of questions from committee members about how much review the state did on the school before it was approved for 315 voucher students.
State Sens. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, and Robert Kostelka, R-Monroe, pressed White for details of the school’s status, exactly how much research state officials did before approving it for students who get the state aid and other issues. News accounts have said that students meet in rooms that serve as the church’s Sunday school classrooms.
The Rev. Jerry Baldwin, the school’s principal and church pastor, was quoted as saying that the school will break ground this summer on a metal building that will house 16 classrooms.
Baldwin said new students can meet in the church gym if the new building is not finished in time.
“How does the department approve giving 315 slots and they don’t have a place for the students to sit?” asked state Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans and member of the committee.
In a prepared statement issued on Wednesday, the state Department of Education said officials interviewed eligible school officials to see if they complied with the scholarship law, which lawmakers approved in April.
The second phase, the agency said, includes “due diligence” talks, public consideration of criteria for participation required by the law and how many families apply for the aid.
State Sen. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, took the unusual step of defending the school in remarks to the full Senate late Thursday afternoon.
Marsha Shuler of the Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.