Voucher program grows by 1,800 students this year

by Walter Pierce

Lawsuits, funding concerns and questions about quality haven't stopped the growth of Gov. Bobby Jindal's voucher program.

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Lawsuits, funding concerns and questions about quality haven't stopped the growth of Gov. Bobby Jindal's voucher program.

The program added more than 1,800 students this year, according to the first official tally for the current 2013-14 school year released Monday.

The state Department of Education said 6,751 students are enrolled in 126 private schools across the state with taxpayer dollars. Another 24 students have switched to a high-performing public school through the voucher program, for a total of 6,775 enrollments.

That's a 37 percent increase, up from 4,944 students using vouchers at the same point last year, in the first year of the statewide program.

"We feel good about the program. We do expect it to continue to increase year after year," said education department spokesman Barry Landry.

Taxpayer-financed tuition through Louisiana's voucher program, called the Louisiana Scholarship Program, is available to students from low- to moderate-income families who otherwise would attend public schools graded C, D or F in the state's rating system.

Forty percent of voucher students are in New Orleans, where vouchers began as a pilot program five years ago and more than 2,750 students are at private schools with state tax dollars. Nearly 1,300 voucher students are in East Baton Rouge Parish.

The program is estimated to cost the state $36 million in the current budget year. The price tag is down from initial estimates. About 8,000 students were approved for state-funded tuition to private schools, but enrollments fell short of that number.

Landry said some students chose to stay in their public schools after they didn't get into their first or second choice voucher schools. Also, he said seven schools weren't allowed to enroll new students because of poor student performance. Another school was kicked out of the program.

Vouchers have been the subject of multiple lawsuits since lawmakers in 2012 backed Jindal's proposal to expand a New Orleans-based program to cover the state.

The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled vouchers were unconstitutionally funded through a formula meant for public schools, so lawmakers had to rework the payment for the program.

Another lawsuit still pending in federal court was filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, seeking to bar Louisiana from awarding future vouchers to students who otherwise would attend public schools under federal desegregation orders - until getting federal clearance.

Jindal has pushed the voucher program as offering more choices to parents and students trapped in low-performing schools.

Critics have raised concerns about the quality of some of the private schools taking voucher students, and the incomplete test results that have been released showed mixed results about the performance of students in the program.