East Baton Rouge Parish has some of the heaviest demand for vouchers in the state, which critics of the public school system call another sign of disenchantment with traditional options.
More than 800 students — 15 percent of the total statewide — were awarded vouchers to attend 18 private and parochial schools in the parish, according to figures released last week by the state Department of Education.
That is second only to voucher totals in New Orleans, which has offered the state aid since 2008 and is authorized for nearly 2,700 new and returning slots.
East Baton Rouge and Orleans parishes account for 62 percent of the 5,637 seats statewide.
The aid is supposed to offset the costs of tuition and mandatory fees at private schools, which the state said averages $5,300 per school.
The East Baton Rouge Parish School District was rated D by the state last year.
Voucher backers contend the aid offers a way out of failing public schools.
Opponents say the assistance threatens traditional public schools, which lose an average of $8,537 in aid through the Minimum Foundation Program for each student that goes elsewhere.
Norman Browning, who led an effort earlier this year to set up a new school district in southeast Baton Rouge, said the demand for vouchers dovetails with complaints he and others have about the East Baton Rouge Parish school system: too few quality schools.
Browning said students attending magnet or gifted and talented schools are getting quality instruction.
“What is happening to the other students?” Browning asked. “That is what we tried to talk about all along.”
The bid for a new district, which required two-thirds majorities in both chambers, sailed through the Senate but failed by four votes in the House.
Opponents said that carving 10 schools out of the East Baton Rouge school system to form a new one would leave behind a school district plagued by high poverty and academic and financial problems.
State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, sponsor of the legislation, said the demand for vouchers continues a long-standing trend of families fleeing the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
“In the last 15 years they went from 60,00 students down to 40,000 students,” White said.
“There is still dissatisfaction with the EBR school board and system,” he added.
Chris Trahan, spokesman for the East Baton Rouge Parish district, said the district had 43,303 students for the most recent school year, which is up nearly 700 students from two years earlier.
Hosanna Christian Academy has been authorized to accept 299 voucher students, which is tops in the parish and third most in the state.
Other parish schools with notable influxes of students using the state aid are Redemptorist Elementary School, 96; St. Francis Xavier School, 95; and Louisiana New School Academy, 52.
State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge and a former member of the East Baton Rouge Parish school board, said the demand for vouchers will have financial consequences for the school district.
“It is going to be a big deal,” Smith said.
East Baton Rouge Parish school leaders, like lots of school districts, are already grappling with budget problems, including health care and retirement costs.
Trahan said it will likely be another six weeks before school officials have a good idea of the effect of vouchers on the district’s budget.
East Baton Rouge Parish schools are set to get $8,736 for each student from the MFP for the upcoming school year, according to state figures.
If all 824 voucher recipients choose not to attend parish public schools, that could potentially cost the district more than $7 million per year, based on state estimates.
Smith, who led House opposition to the breakaway school district, said it is hard to explain the demand for vouchers.
“I guess it is just people wanting to see change, to do something different,” she said.
Schools offering voucher slots have shown a clear preference for younger students, which stems from the view that educators have a better chance for success if they catch the children early.
Nearly 10,000 students applied for about 6,600 voucher slots, with about 5,600 authorized so far.
Students from kindergarten through second grade account for 52 percent of the total, state figures show.
Voucher students in grades nine through 12 make up only 5 percent of the program.