School voucher program applications increase

Despite legal questions, applications for Louisiana’s voucher program are up nearly 20 percent, state Superintendent of Education John White said Wednesday.

About 11,800 students have sought the aid for the next school year compared to about 10,000 who applied last year, White told reporters.

“It is evident that parents continue to be interested in choosing the school that is right for their child,” White said. “This does represent a significant increase in the number of students who are participating in the program.”

Vouchers are state aid for students who previously attended public schools rated C, D or F and who meet income rules.

The state funds allow them to attend private and parochial schools.

However, 19th Judicial District Court Judge Timothy Kelley ruled on Nov. 30 that the 2012 law represents an unconstitutional diversion of state dollars designed for public schools.

Attorneys for the state have appealed Kelley’s ruling, and oral arguments were held March 19.

When a decision will be issued is unclear.

White repeated his view that, regardless of how the court rules, the voucher program will continue for the 2013-14 school year.

The superintendent said it is premature to speculate on exactly how the program would be continued until the court rules.

The vouchers cost about $22 million per year in state and locally-generated dollars.

White said that, if those students attended public schools, the cost would be about $40 million.

He has said the state spends an average of about $5,100 per year for voucher students — White and other backers call them scholarships — and about $8,500 annually for students to attend public schools.

The superintendent said 134 private and parochial schools are set to accept students, up 16 schools from the current academic year.

He said the 11,800 applications include about 4,800 students enrolled now and about 7,000 new applications.

The state Department of Education is scheduled to make initial offers on the week of April 15 based on lotteries that match students with participating schools.

Controversy has swirled around the program since Gov. Bobby Jindal pushed the expansion last year.

The previous law applied only to students in New Orleans.

But the Louisiana Legislature made the assistance statewide last year amid arguments that it would give students another way out of failing public schools.

Opponents charged that the change would damage traditional public schools, which face a fifth consecutive year of freezes in state aid per student amid budget problems.

White said in late February that he had reached out to plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including the Louisiana School Boards Association about changing the way vouchers are financed.

Scott Richard, executive director of the LSBA, said at the time that his group opposed any funding method that results in state school aid dollars going to students attending private or parochial schools.

Officials of both sides have repeatedly said they are confident their side will prevail in the state Supreme Court.

White on Wednesday noted that a survey done by the Louisiana branch of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, which supports vouchers, shows that 93 percent of parents surveyed who have children in the program are happy with their child’s school year.

The survey included comments from 1,244 families from Feb. 1-28.