April 29, 2016 09:39 AM
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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards pushed back Thursday against criticism he is ousting children from Louisiana's voucher program, telling pro-voucher pastors who unexpectedly showed up at the governor's regular press briefing that they are being misled about proposed program cuts.

The New Orleans pastors interrupted the final minutes of the news conference to press the Democratic governor on their worries. The men said the taxpayer-financed private school tuition is important to families.

"We want you to understand that there is a concern. We have a concern because those families need those vouchers because it is a tremendous blessing to our community," said the Rev. Leonard Lucas, whose Light City Christian Academy participates in the voucher program.

Edwards said the $6 million cut proposed for the upcoming 2016-17 school year wouldn't remove students currently receiving vouchers, but would stop program growth. He said every year the program is allocated more money than it spends and any reduction would lessen the tuition payment to schools, not force out students.

He said the state's deep budget problems have forced him to propose many cuts he doesn't want to see enacted: "It's simply arithmetic."

"We have a $600 million budget deficit, and we are also cutting traditional K-12 funding by $50 million," Edwards told the pastors.

Thursday's dustup came as pro-voucher group Louisiana Federation for Children launched TV and radio ads this week hitting Edwards about the cut proposal. The ads accuse Edwards of lying when he said he didn't want to kick people out of the voucher program.

The organization says a drop from $42 million to $36 million in voucher financing next year would boot 1,000 students from the program — a claim that Edwards said is false.

"We've got a special interest group from out of state that's currently misleading the public about issues such as this voucher program and kids' education in Louisiana," the governor said.

About 7,100 students from low- to moderate-income families are receiving vouchers from the Louisiana Scholarship Program, attending 119 private and parochial schools.

Edwards intends to ask lawmakers to consider tax changes in a summer special session to stave off a long list of budget reductions. He urged the pastors and others who support the voucher program to press lawmakers to support revenue increases.