Private schools offer seats in program
Baton Rouge-area private and parochial schools have offered more than 1,100 seats for students who hope to escape troubled public schools using state vouchers, officials said Tuesday.
The aid, which backers call scholarships, is supposed to offset all or most of the tuition and fees charged by the non-public schools.
State Superintendent of Education John White said Tuesday statewide interest — about 5,100 new slots were offered — exceeds the initial interest shown in other states with similar programs, including Ohio and Indiana.
“We have a strong start,” White said.
Melanie Verges, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, said schools in the eight-parish region made available 400 classroom seats.
“Philosophically, we believe in parental choice in education,” Verges said in a telephone interview. “We believe that part of our ministry is to serve the community.”
The program stems from one of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s two key bills to overhaul public school operations, which state lawmakers approved in April.
The aid applies to low- and middle-income students who attend “C,” “D” and “F” schools, as rated by the state, or for first-time kindergarten students who meet the income and other criteria.
First priority goes to students in “D” and “F” schools.
If applications exceed seats available they will be allocated through a lottery.
Family income cannot exceed $57,625 for a family of four; $67,525 for a family of five and $77,425 for a family of six.
Applications began on Tuesday.
Forms can be obtained from participating schools or online at http://www.LAK-12SP.com. School lists can be obtained by calling (877) 453-2721.
Applications are due by June 29.
Families can rank up to five schools on the form.
White said the average tuition of schools on the list is about $6,100.
He said state school aid averages about $8,500 per child, which means families that qualify likely would not have to come up with any money for tuition or required fees.
Families would be responsible for uniform costs and optional fees.
Schools that take part are not required to provide transportation.
About 380,000 of Louisiana’s roughly 700,000 public school students are eligible for the aid.
White said earlier that he thought about 2,000 students would apply in the first year. He said Tuesday that number may be slightly higher.
Backers call the aid an option for students trapped in failing public schools.
Teacher union leaders and other opponents say that vouchers will damage an already struggling public school system.
They have also promised a lawsuit over what they call the unconstitutional use of public school dollars for some students to attend private and parochial schools.
“This is going to be a litigated matter,” Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said during a Louisiana House committee hearing Tuesday on a related issue.
In the Baton Rouge area the top participant is Hosanna Christian Academy, which is offering 200 seats.
Three schools in Ascension Parish are making available 159 slots for students who get the aid.
Another 39 are available in West Baton Parish and Zachary.
Slots offered by schools in the East Baton Rouge portion of the diocese range from two at St. Michael the Archangel High School to 100 at Redemptorist Elementary School.
Verges said tuition ranges from $4,000-$4,500 in elementary schools to about $6,500 in high schools.
“There won’t be any gap to fill,” she said of students and families who qualify to attend one of the diocese schools.
About 15,000 students attend diocese schools now.
The state Department of Education said that 7,450 scholarship seats are available statewide, including 2,300 in a New Orleans program that has operated since 2008.
They account for 125 schools in 33 parishes, including 57 in East Baton Rouge and Orleans parishes.
Only one public school offered seats for voucher students. It is Park Vista Elementary School in Opelousas, which said it has 42 seats available in kindergarten, first and second grades.
The new state law allows public schools rated “A” or “B” by the state to take part in the program.
White said the fact that this the first year for the aid held down interest by public and some private schools.
The state has about 1,300 public schools for its 700,000 students.
Another 120,000 students attend private and parochial schools.