White: Voucher use should grow

Despite an ongoing legal challenge, the ranks of voucher students and schools that accept them will likely grow for the next school year, state Superintendent of Education John White said Wednesday.

White also said that, even if the current method for funding vouchers is struck down, he is confident that state policymakers will find a way to continue the program, which is costing about $22 million per year.

“My conversations with policymakers and others make it clear to me that the view is that we should support the families,” White said, a reference to those who qualify for the state aid.

The issue stems from a 2012 state law that allows students who attend public schools rated C, D or F, and who meet income rules, to qualify for state-funded vouchers to attend private and parochial schools.

However, 19th Judicial District Court Judge Tim Kelley, of Baton Rouge, ruled on Nov. 30 that the funding mechanism in the law is unconstitutional because it improperly diverts state dollars designed for public schools.

Attorneys for the state appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

A hearing is set for March 19 at 2 p.m.

White announced Wednesday that applications for the 2013-14 school year are available and can be done online or by paper.

The deadline is March 15.

Officials of the state Department of Education will make initial offers to families on the week of April 15.

White said 134 non-public schools have met initial state qualification requirements, up from 118 now.

The state has about 5,000 voucher students now.

He said he assumes that number will rise during the next school year, in part because some schools already taking part in the program will add new grades.

Last year controversy erupted over the quality of some of the private schools authorized by the state to accept voucher students.

White has said this year’s review began in November, including whether schools meet state rules for independent accreditation.

Those that are not, and hope to qualify for voucher students, undergo visits from state officials.

When the state Supreme Court will rule on the legality of the voucher financing law is unclear.

The 2013 regular legislative session lasts from April 8 until June 6.

State officials face a shortfall of more than $1 billion to maintain current spending levels.

The vouchers are supposed to pay for tuition and mandatory fees at private and parochial schools.

White said voucher students cost the state an average of $5,100 per year, compared with about $8,500 to attend a public school.

The list of non-public schools that have met the state’s initial okay include 21 in East Baton Rouge Parish, three in Ascension Parish, one in West Baton Rouge Parish and one in the Zachary Community School District.

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