Vouchers likely to stay around

NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana’s voucher program, which covers the cost of tuition at private schools for low-income families, is unlikely to go away next year, even after the state Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers will have to find a different way of funding it.

With as many as 8,000 families holding a promise from the state that their child will have a place to go to school next year, lawmakers in Baton Rouge will be under intense pressure to come up with the money.

The question now for both proponents and detractors of the program is, what becomes of vouchers in Louisiana after that.

Could lawmakers eventually decide to phase it out over time, particularly after Jindal leaves office? And without a guarantee of funding, could it still grow big enough to have the kind of impact that programs in Milwaukee of Florida do, sending tens of thousands of pupils to private schools each year?

The Jindal administration had reasons for funding the program out of the same big pot of money that pays for public schools in Louisiana. It’s referred to as the Minimum Foundation Program, amounts to about $3.5 billion each year, and is at least partially shielded from the drama of Louisiana’s annual budget debate in the Legislature.

But earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled Jindal’s move out of bounds, affirming in essence that the big pot of money is labeled “for public schools only” in the state Constitution.

That decision sent lawmakers back to the drawing board. And it all but ensured that another divisive exchange over the wisdom of using public dollars for private schools will come up in the Legislature every year, or at least as long as its opponents still have some fight left.

If it isn’t a part of the MFP, voucher funding will have to clear the Legislature as a separate line item in the state’s budget, and the Legislature has already had a preview of how that goes. Even the small pilot program that Jindal launched in New Orleans in 2008 drew an outcry when it came time for the Legislature to pay for it.

As it grew each year, adding one grade at a time, the governor upped the number of dollars set aside for the program in his annual budget proposal. Each year, the program’s opponents went on the attack, slamming Jindal for putting more money into private schools even as the state’s per-pupil allocation to public schools remained frozen.

During at least two separate sessions of the Legislature, lawmakers pulled voucher funding out the budget bill entirely before restoring it at the last minute.

Jindal hoped to avoid going through all this again by folding voucher funding into the MFP, which is hashed out by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Once the board signs off on the formula, which assigns local districts money on a per-student basis, the Legislature gives it a yes or no vote but cannot make amendments or cut it. And while Jindal still has influence in the Legislature, he has almost total sway over BESE, with three appointees on the 11-member board and a handful of allies that he helped get elected.

Incorporated into the MFP, voucher funding would simply flow to private schools on a per-student basis, growing naturally as more seats open in private schools, many of which have been adding voucher students one grade at a time. Now it will be a fight.

“The governor wanted vouchers inside the MFP to give the program financial stability,” said Leslie Jacobs, a former state board of education member who has been skeptical of the voucher expansion.

Now that voucher funding will have to stand on its own in the Legislature, Jacobs said, “It’ll be competing for funding with hospitals, with higher education, with all the other funding priorities of the state.”

Still, none of this means the existing voucher program is about to disappear. Even its most vocal opponents say they wouldn’t want to see that type of disruption for the thousands of families who have been promised spots in the program and haven’t made plans to find a public school for the fall.

In fact, it has put the state’s biggest teachers unions in the odd position of arguing that a Republican governor has now essentially created an “entitlement” program akin to Medicaid or Social Security, a drain on the state’s budget that can’t be immediately done away with because of the pain it would cause constituents.

“Maybe that was the intent: Establish a beachhead,” said Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. “But that’s pretty cynical.”

Monaghan said he would like to see the Legislature put a moratorium on the program and have lawmakers take a close look at whether private schools are really producing better results than their public counterparts in the first place.

There is some precedent for that. The federal government in 2009 decided to stop accepting new students in a Washington, D.C., voucher program before restoring funding in 2011.

But the odds of it happening in Louisiana seem long. John White, who is implementing the voucher program as head of the Louisiana Department of Education, argues that the politics of funding the voucher program outside of the MFP aren’t as ugly as they look.

To pay for the 8,000 students who have signed up for the program for next year, the Legislature would have to find about $41 million, a big number but peanuts compared with the $3.5 billion going to public schools. “Frankly, relative to $3.5 billion, it stands in pretty stark relief,” White said.

Many parents, meanwhile, will be on pins and needles to see if White is correct. However unlikely it may be that lawmakers would ever simply cut off funding, it can no longer be ruled out as a possibility.

“It’s alarming,” said Essence Jackson, whose 6-year-old daughter enrolled in the program last year and now attends Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Westwego. Jackson said she has gone back to school herself recently on a Pell grant and can’t afford to pay tuition on her own.

“Not unless I had to do some illegal things,” she said.