Concerns raised about nonpublic schools on voucher list
by Will Sentell
Capitol news bureau
June 23, 2012
Two more nonpublic schools on the state’s list to accept voucher students are under scrutiny, officials said.
The schools, both of which are in southwest Louisiana, are among 125 statewide in 33 parishes that hope to attract students from troubled public schools under a new state law.
The plan, which is the target of a lawsuit, will allow up to 5,100 low and middle-income students to qualify for state-funded vouchers to finance tuition and some fee costs at private and parochial schools.
But new questions have surfaced about Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake, which is near Lake Charles, and BeauVer Christian Academy, which is in DeRidder.
Eternity, which the state says had 38 students during the 2011-12 school year, hopes to enroll 135 voucher students.
BeauVer, which the state says had 60 students during the same time, hopes to have 119 voucher students.
However, the Lake Charles American Press reported on Thursday that Eternity lacks an occupational license, which is required to run a nonpublic school and relates to fire safety and health issues.
Meanwhile, a veteran teacher in Lake Charles, and former resident of DeRidder, is complaining to state legislators and others about BeauVer, including its facility and other issues.
State Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, said questions about both schools warrant attention.
“Hopefully these two schools turn out OK,” Geymann said. “But there are certainly some question marks there.”
School officials did not return calls for comment.
State Sen. Blade Morrish, R-Jennings, said he has questions about the ability of Eternity Christian to handle a big influx of voucher students.
Morrish said BeauVer “seems to have serious issues with the ownership, lawsuits pending and I believe a lot of other issues.”
State officials are still working on exactly what standards voucher schools will have to meet.
All the activity stems from a law pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal that won final legislative approval in April.
The new rules allow low and middle-income students in struggling public schools to transfer to private schools, with tuition and some fees paid for by state-funded vouchers.
State Superintendent of Education John White announced on May 22 that 125 schools, with all but one private or parochial, have offered 5,100 slots for voucher students.
The list includes more than 1,100 classroom seats in the Baton Rouge area.
But the quality of some of the school sites and other issues have sparked controversy while state officials work to finalize which schools qualify, and how many students they will be eligible to enroll in August.
White was grilled last month by lawmakers after a news story disclosed that New Living Word School in Ruston stood to collect $2.7 million in state school dollars if all 315 students were approved for vouchers, which the school requested.
The current enrollment is 122.
Critics questioned whether the school has enough space, and tuition is expected to be $8,500 per student, well over the $6,100 average for participating schools.
In a new case, the founder of Eternity Christian was quoted in the news story as saying she did not know the school needed an occupational license and that she plans to take care of the issue.
School officials did not return two calls for comment.
Meanwhile Vicky Johnston, a teacher for 18 years, said she started checking on BeauVer Christian Academy independently because her childhood home is about one mile from the site.
She said a sign in front misspelled the word scholarship, portable classrooms had recently been moved in, and timber was pushed in piles surrounding the buildings.
Johnson said that a check of records at the Beauregard Parish courthouse raised other questions about school operations and that she has passed on her concerns to a handful of lawmakers in southwest Louisiana and others.
An official at the school said the head of BeauVer is taking a “sabbatical” and referred a reporter to a second educator, who did not return two telephone calls.
Exactly when the state will finalize schools and enrollments for voucher students is unclear.
The criteria that will be used, which was initially on the agenda for Monday’s meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, will be delayed.
“Because of the seriousness of the issue we are trying to get it done as fast as we can do it while maintaining the proper diligence,” said Jim Garvey, co-chairman of the BESE committee that oversees the issue.
Garvey said he was aware of questions about Eternity Christian and BeauVer.
He said schools whose enrollment would rise sharply with voucher students will face bigger hurdles and more vetting than others.
Nick Bolt, deputy chief of staff for White, said the department was set to finish visits to the schools that have offered voucher slots last week.
Bolt said issues at those visits included whether school facilities can handle the proposed student enrollments, staff hirings, school calendars and other issues.
He said state officials have visited Eternity Christian Academy and BeauVer Christian.