Almost half of the 861 slots available in East Baton Rouge Parish under the state’s new voucher program are in schools that would be doubling their enrollments if the slots were filled, state records show.
One school, Angles Academy, was approved for 106 voucher students despite reporting a 2011-12 enrollment of just 11 students, according to the state Department of Education’s website.
The school’s principal, Adrienne Thomas, said both numbers are wrong.
The school cannot take 106 voucher students, she said.
“We are working with the state on correcting those numbers now,” Thomas said.
Thomas said the school erred when it put the number of students it could accept on its initial application for the voucher program.
After initially approving approximately 5,100 voucher slots statewide, state officials announced that the schools had only been preliminarily approved, and that further “due diligence” would be done before final approval.
The voucher program came under the microscope after a news story said a church-affiliated school in north Louisiana with 122 students was approved to receive 315 voucher students, raising questions on whether it has adequate space and teachers.
The state Department of Education is reviewing school applications, department spokesman Barry Landry said in an email.
Officials do not expect major adjustments to the number of slots available, he said.
“We anticipate that only a small number of schools will not be approved for the full number of scholarship seats requested,” Landry said.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration and program supporters refer to the vouchers as “scholarships.”
“It is incumbent on Superintendent (John) White and the Department of Education to put some safeguards in,” said Leslie Jacobs, a former member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and a founder of Educate Now, a nonprofit organization advocating reform of New Orleans public schools.
Vouchers have been used in New Orleans since 2008.
A small school with a high percentage of voucher students “would deserve much more scrutiny than a school that has 500 students and takes 10 voucher students,” Jacobs said.
Thomas, of Angles Academy, said she expected the school to have between 60 and 70 voucher slots available for the 2012-13 school year.
Angles Academy will not be accepting any 11th- or 12th-grade voucher students, despite being initially approved for 16 slots in the two grades, Thomas said.
Thomas also said the school had more than 11 students in 2011-12.
“It was 25,” she said. About half of those were students with disabilities, Thomas said.
The school’s maximum enrollment is “about 75 at this time,” said Thomas, who noted the school is “transitioning” to a new location.
Angles Academy is one of 16 schools in East Baton Rouge Parish that has elected to participate in the state’s voucher program, according to the program’s website. The schools will have 861 slots available, the website says.
The increase in enrollments could mean hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars flowing into private and parochial schools approved for voucher students.
The tuition at Angles Academy is $4,800 per year, Thomas said. With fees, the cost rises to about $7,000 per year, she said.
If the school is approved for 60 voucher slots, as Thomas said, it could receive up to $420,000 in state funds.
Vouchers would cover tuition and selected fees but would not exceed the state per-pupil funding allocated to the parish school system that the student had attended. In East Baton Rouge Parish, the state per-pupil allocation is about $8,700 per year, according to estimates from the East Baton Rouge Parish School System.
Another school, Greater Mount Olive Christian Academy, estimated it would have 50 voucher slots available, despite having an enrollment of just 21 students last school year, according to the Department of Education’s website.
School director Jacqueline Dixon scheduled, then canceled, an interview with The Advocate. Dixon confirmed by phone that the school has applied for 50 voucher slots.
A third school, the Louisiana New School Academy on North Boulevard near downtown, estimated it would have 130 voucher slots available.
The school had an enrollment of 51 students in 2011-12, according to the Department of Education’s website.
The school’s founding principal and director, Valeria Temple Thompson, said the school was hoping to get “at least 130” voucher students.
The school is currently undergoing some renovations to accommodate the expected influx of students, but Thompson said the school has “plenty of room.”
Tuition at the school is $4,800 per year, meaning if 130 voucher students enroll, the school could receive $624,000 in public funds.
State education officials had already notified her they planned to visit the school, Thompson said.
Trinity Christian Academy, an independent Christian school in Zachary, has been preapproved for 35 voucher slots, which would significantly increase its enrollment from the 30 listed on the Department of Education’s website.
The school “ended the year with about 45 students,” Principal Veronica Watson said.
The school, which has four full-time teachers and several part-time teachers, is prepared to elevate some part-time staff to full time if needed to accommodate extra students, Watson said.
When asked if the school provides lunch, Watson replied that “students brown bag it.” The school uses a church’s gymnasium for physical education classes and its sports teams, she said.
The school’s tuition is $3,250 per year for elementary students and $3,450 for high school students, Watson said. Filling the voucher spots could bring in more than $113,000 in taxpayer dollars.
The school’s website says it requires four “Spiritual Development” classes, each of which offers “an indebt (sic) study” of some part of the Bible.
Eight Catholic schools in East Baton Rouge Parish have opened up voucher slots, ranging from 100 at Redemptorist Elementary to two at both St. Michael the Archangel High School and St. Alphonsus School in Central.
“We believe in parental choice in education,” said Melanie Verges, superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge. “Even if a family doesn’t have a lot of money, they deserve an education.”
One of those schools — 92-year-old St. Francis Xavier in north Baton Rouge — is poised to take 95 voucher students to go along with its 2011-12 enrollment of just 87, according to the DOE’s website.
The school has space to accommodate the extra students, which was a factor in offering the slots, Verges said.
Other Catholic schools in the area, such as Sacred Heart, St. Aloysius, St. Joseph’s Academy and Catholic High School, have opted not to participate in the voucher program, Verges said.
“They turn away so many students,” she said. “It’s a problem with capacity, that’s all it is.”
Verges said more Catholic schools could participate in the future. “I fully expect that next year, we will look at an expansion of the program.”
The largest number of slots in the parish is at Hosanna Christian Academy, which has 200 slots to add to its 350 students.
Principal Josh LeSage originally said the school would look to add about 60 voucher students, but increased the number after consulting with parents who send their children to the school.
LeSage said Hosanna had already received more than 600 voucher-related applications.
Staffing would be key in determining how many voucher students the school accepts, LeSage said, adding that he expected to take at least 200.
“We probably have capacity for 650 students,” LeSage said of the school. “The school was at about 550 right after (Hurricane) Katrina.”
Hosanna has provisionally opened up 50 voucher slots in kindergarten and first and second grades, and just five voucher slots in the third through 12th grades, according to the Department of Education’s website.
“Taking younger kids is strategic,” LeSage said. “It minimizes risk.”
On the other end of the spectrum, St. Michael the Archangel High School has opened two ninth-grade voucher slots in a student body of 715, according to state records.
Similarly, The Dunham School has four kindergarten voucher slots to add to its 802 current students.
The Department of Education’s review of the schools will include several elements, said Landry, the agency spokesman.
“In many cases, this will involve a review of the school’s current and proposed staffing plan, facilities, and instructional plan,” Landry said. The reviews could involve discussions with school leaders and site visits, he said.
“I think you will find tremendous variation,” said Jacobs, who has studied the voucher program in New Orleans. “If you have two schools, each with 300 students, and one has 20 voucher students spread through grades K-8, it’s going to be different from one that is all voucher students.”
One of the state’s two largest teacher unions, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, filed suit Thursday to stop the implementation of the voucher program. The suit alleges that the bill illegally bundled what should have been multiple proposals into a single piece of legislation.
The union has asked a state judge to issue an injunction suspending implementation while the court case is heard.
Under the legislation, students who attended a private school in 2011-12 would not be eligible for the vouchers, according to the program’s website.
To be eligible, kindergarten to 12th-grade students must have attended a C-, D- or F-rated public school in 2011-12 or be entering kindergarten for the first time in 2012-13.
Students awarded vouchers in 2011-12 also are eligible, but this applies only to a small group of students from the New Orleans area.