Friday, February 13, 2009

Sponsor says public funded school voucher program will grow

Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The sponsor of legislation that lets some New Orleans children attend private school at public expense says she's pleased with response to the program and expects it to grow, although the number taking part in its first year is lower than expected and future funding is uncertain.

In its first year, only about 640 of about 1,300 students who applied enrolled in the program. The legislation authorized tuition for 1,500.

State Sen. Ann Duplessis, D-New Orleans, said there was little time to promote the program to parents between the time it was approved last summer and the beginning of the current school year. "We passed this legislation and had less than a month to get the rules promulgated and to get it marketed to parents," she said in an interview last week.

The program covers up to $7,138 in private school tuition per student, according to the state Department of Education. Tuition costs vary from school to school, but the average award is approximately $3,856, the department said.

Also, Department of Education spokeswoman Ashley Rodrigue said, some of the private schools had more state-funded applicants than they could accommodate and students declined to attend other eligible schools.

Duplessis, who handled the legislation along with state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, said she's confident the program will grow this year as more parents learn how to apply. She also predicted the program will be fully funded despite the state's budget problems. The state budget for the current fiscal year, which runs from July through June, had to be trimmed by $341 million at mid-year and projections are that the state will have $1.2 billion less to work with as it prepares the next fiscal year budget.

Passage of the voucher program was a major legislative goal last year for Gov. Bobby Jindal, who had to overcome fierce opposition from teacher unions and public school administrators who have long fought vouchers, saying tax money is better spent improving public schools. It remains important to Jindal, his spokesman said Friday, although how much he will seek hasn't been determined.

"We're still in the process of reviewing all state expenditures and final decisions will be announced when the governor's budget is presented to the Legislature on March 13," Kyle Plotkin, Jindal's press secretary, said in an e-mailed statement. "The scholarship program is a priority for the governor and it's important that these students have the ability to continue their education."

At Jindal's behest, lawmakers included $10 million in the state budget for the voucher program for the 2008-09 school year.

With the first year's low enrollment, only about $3.7 million of that will likely be spent, according to testimony late last year before a House committee.

Growth was built into the program, however. It was available this year only to New Orleans students from low- and moderate-income families who were entering kindergarten though third grade and who otherwise would be attending failing New Orleans public schools.

Those who received the vouchers this year are to keep getting them through 12th grade. Also, eligibility is to expand each year, grade level by grade level, with new fourth-graders able to join the program this year.

All of that is contingent on money being appropriated for the vouchers.

While the administration hasn't yet said how much it will ask the Legislature to appropriate for the program next year, a major opponent, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, will ask lawmakers to kill it by cutting off its money.

"We were opposed form the beginning and we're going to be consistent in our opposition," LFT president Steve Monaghan said Monday.

While backers of the plan say it provides some lower-income students with a better opportunity for a good education in a city where schools are infamous for low achievement, LFT notes that the state has taken major steps to improve those schools, taking over scores of them. The voucher program essentially puts the state in competition with itself, Monaghan said.

"If you're going to cut off a piece of the population that you're hoping to serve, then you wonder about the soundness of the public policy debate," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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