Louisiana’s expanded voucher program for students to attend private and parochial schools has a decided south Louisiana flavor, with East Baton Rouge Parish and two others near the Gulf Coast offering lots of the seats.
State officials announced on May 22 that 5,100 seats will be offered to low and middle-income students attending “C,” “D” and “F” public schools.
The aid, which backers call scholarships, is touted by Gov. Bobby Jindal and others as an option for some students trapped in failing public schools.
However, the overwhelming majority of open spots are in south Louisiana, which has a long history of Roman Catholic schools that appealed to parents long before academic and other problems sparked an exodus out of some public school systems.
“It is an all-Louisiana program, and we are thrilled to offer options to every corner of the state,” state Superintendent of Education John White told reporters.
But only seven of 33 parishes with schools offering slots for students are in north Louisiana.
Meanwhile, East Baton Rouge, Orleans and Jefferson parishes account for 42 percent of the 124 schools on the list.
That includes 17 in East Baton Rouge Parish, which has a “D” rating from the state.
The system has 83 schools rated “C,” “D” or “F,” including 25 that get failing marks.
Catina Dunn is one of those parents who hopes to qualify for the state aid.
Dunn, who lives in Baker, said she does not consider public schools there a viable option for her trio, who are ages 5, 6 and 13.
“We will have to move if we don’t get the scholarships,” she said.
Dunn’s first choice is Redemptorist Elementary School, which is offering 100 seats to voucher students.
The eight-parish Diocese of Baton Rouge is one of the most aggressive in the state in offering classroom slots for students in troubled public schools.
Melanie Verges, superintendent of schools for the diocese, said the outreach is part of the church’s ministry. “Education is a true gift,” Verges said.
She said more than 60 percent of the diocese’s 30 schools offered classroom seats for voucher students and more are likely to do so next year.
Scholarships will cover the full amount of a school’s tuition and required fees.
Uniforms and optional fees will be the responsibility of the family.
The money comes from state aid that had financed the child’s education at the public school.
White said state school aid averages about $8,500 per student.
He said average tuition for schools that offered seats is about $6,100 per year.
White said that means a savings to the state of roughly $2,400 per child.
Hosanna Christian Academy is offering 200 seats at its school, which is the largest of any school in East Baton Rouge Parish.
That includes 50 voucher seats in kindergarten, 50 in first grade and 50 in second grade.
Josh LeSage, administrator at the school, said 72 percent of its 352 students are African American.
The aid could boost enrollment at the school by 57 percent.
“It is about social justice,” LeSage said of the decision to offer 200 seats to voucher students.
“Giving people who cannot afford to move to another school district or write a check each month the same opportunity,” he said.
Why schools opted not to participate varies.
Some filled their classrooms for the 2012-13 school year months before the voucher law even passed the Legislature.
Others already had waiting lists, offer scholarships through private donations or feared complaints from parents about an influx of students from troubled public schools.
Families have to meet income rules to qualify for the aid.
Household income cannot exceed $37,825 for a family of two; $47,725 for a family of three and $57,625 for a family of four.
Applications began on May 22. The deadline is June 29.
If applications exceed space a lottery will be held.
Families are supposed to be notified by July 29.
Under the law, 380,000 of Louisiana’s roughly 700,000 public school enrollment could qualify.
White said initially he thought about 2,000 would do so.
He said last week that figure may be a little low.
Penny Dastugue, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said she thinks applications will be more than double initial estimates after more than 5,000 slots were offered by private and parochial schools.
“My guess is that it will be closer to 5,000,” Dastugue said.