Court voucher ruling scares some
As it enters its second year, student participation in Louisiana’s embattled experiment with private school vouchers has grown by 37 percent, a fast pace but slower than state leaders estimated before an adverse court Supreme Court ruling in May.
The number of participating schools increased — 120 to 127 — as did the number of participating students — 4,994 to 6,775, according to totals released by the Louisiana Department of Education.
On May 1, the department pegged likely participation at almost 8,000 students.
If that had held true, the resulting growth would have been closer to 60 percent.
Days after that announcement, though, the Louisiana Supreme Court declared vouchers unconstitutionally pulled money from a pool of money available only to public schools.
The vouchers allow children attending Louisiana public schools with academic grades of C, D or F to transfer to approved private schools.
One public school, Park Vista Elementary in Opelousas, participates as well.
This year the Louisiana Scholarship Program is estimated to cost taxpayers about $36 million, or an average of about $5,300 per child. Originally, the state estimated this year’s cost at $41 million.
The vast majority of children who attend private schools in Louisiana, roughly 95 percent, still pay tuition.
New Orleans, where vouchers began as a pilot program in 2008, continues to outpace the rest of the state.
Almost 2,800 students at 28 schools in that city receive vouchers, nearly half of all students in the program, and 500 more student than participated last year.
That’s also more than double the participation level of runner-up East Baton Rouge Parish where about 1,300 students are taking public money to attend private school, up from about 700 last year.
“We feel very good about how the program is doing, and we think it will continue to expand,” said Barry Landry, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.
After the Supreme Court ruling, Gov. Bobby Jindal persuaded the Legislature to continue funding the program via the state’s general fund.
That ruling and the reaction to it has had consequences, according to Josh LeSage, principal of Hosanna Christian Academy in Baton Rouge, the school with the most voucher students in Louisiana.
The private Christian school expanded a lot. The number of children receiving vouchers at Hosanna grew from 281 last year to about 480 today.
The school had originally planned for another 170 voucher students.
To make room for the influx, LeSage said he was going to move high school students from the school’s campus on Goodwood Boulevard to an unused school building three miles away.
After the Supreme Court ruling, though, Hosanna postponed that plan.
Before the ruling, the money followed the child, meaning participating schools didn’t have to worry about artificial caps, just their own capacity, he said.
“Now, it’s a fixed pot of money,” LeSage explained.
LeSage said he also pulled back to give other private schools a shot at slots.
Another problem emerged after the school year started in August when 51 prospective voucher students Hosanna was counting on didn’t show up.
LeSage said the school later interviewed most of those no-show families and many of them cited the uncertainty caused by the Supreme Court ruling.
Other factors depressed voucher participation in Louisiana.
For instance, seven schools in the New Orleans area had their participation in the program frozen after their first year of scores on standardized tests came in roughly at the level of a F-rated school.
Those seven schools ended up enrolling roughly 250 fewer students this year than they’d originally planned.
The voucher legal battle has shifted from state to federal court.
In late August, the U.S. Justice Department asked the U.S. District Court in New Orleans to temporarily halt the program until it can determine whether the vouchers hurt desegregation efforts in Louisiana school districts under desegregation court orders.
In late September, that court ordered Louisiana to undertake an analysis of the voucher program and provide it to the federal government by Nov. 7.