A new state law that expands student access to private and parochial schools includes ample safeguards to prevent abuses that have surfaced in some other states, backers said.
The measure, which was pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal and approved by the Legislature in April, was touted as another option for low- and middle-income students to escape failing public schools.
Under the law, firms and individuals can make a donation, then qualify for a rebate of up to 95 percent of what they gave.
But a story last month in The New York Times said Georgia and some other states with similar laws have found abuses in the program.
The complaints include families channeling donations to aid their own children, donations being used to lure highly-touted athletes to private schools and legislators and lobbyists for big companies cozily hashing out which schools would get the donations.
The story said problems in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona have undermined the way the law was sold, which was a way to help needy children escape failing public schools.
State Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, the sponsor of the Louisiana law, said it is modeled after one in Florida, where the story said scholarships “are strictly controlled to make sure they go to poor families.
“You donate X amount of dollars and you walk away,” Talbot said of donors here.
“You can’t say this is for Kirk Talbot’s kid to go to John Curtis and play football,” he said, a reference to the New Orleans area high school football powerhouse.
An official of the state Department of Education said the law was tightened during its path through the Legislature in part to avoid problems that have appeared elsewhere.
“I think a lot of questions have been answered and a lot of safeguards have been put in place,” said Erin Bendily, deputy superintendent for the Office of Departmental Support.
Georgia and other states have had their laws on the books for several years.
The Louisiana law takes effect on Jan. 1, and the donations will be used for the first time during the 2013-14 school year.
Bendily said it will be late summer or early fall before the department starts hammering out rules to help govern the program.
Those rules could play a major role in whether the law is prone to abuse.
One of the key complaints in Georgia, the story said, is that parents could make donations, qualify for a tax credit and then apply for a scholarship for their own children, some of whom were already attending the school.
The Louisiana law bans donations earmarked for specific students or schools.
Firms and individuals can only request that the money be directed to a disabled student.
“The parents steer this whole thing, which is what we want,” Talbot said.
“Not the schools and not the donors,” he added.
Students would either have to be entering kindergarten, or attended a public school the previous year, to qualify for the aid.
If demand for the vouchers exceeds the supply, students who attend public schools rated D or F by the state would be among those getting special consideration.
Students could also use the scholarships if they changed schools.
The measure, House Bill 969, won final Senate approval 32-7 and passed the House 65-36.
In general, Republicans backed the legislation and Democrats opposed it.
However, most of the arguments focused on issues other than problems cited in Georgia and elsewhere.
State Sen. Dale Erdey, R-Livingston, voted “no” on the measure in the Senate.
Erdey said earlier this week he did so in part because no such donations are allowed for public schools.
Under the law, donations will be made to tax-exempt groups called student tuition organizations, which would have to be authorized by the state Department of Education.
Administrative costs could not exceed 5 percent of the donations.
Donors would only be eligible for rebates at the end of the school year.
Members of the tuition groups would have to undergo criminal background checks.
They would also have to furnish public information to the department yearly, including the total amount of contributions made by each contributor during the previous calendar year, the social security number of each donor, how much the tuition organization collected, how much was used for scholarships and administrative costs.
The report has to be done by a certified public accountant.
Talbot’s measure is separate from another Jindal-backed law that expands access for state aid for some students to attend private and parochial schools.