Like lots of parents, Latoya Johnson is anxious about whether her two sons will get state vouchers for classes in private schools that start in August.
At the urging of Gov. John Bel Edwards, the Legislature has approved a 14 percent cut in money for the program because of state budget problems.
That means some students will be left out unless the Legislature restores some or all the money in the current special session, which has to end by June 23.
Johnson, a Baton Rouge accountant, is worried.
“Just being an accountant, I am realistic,” she said. “I understand the money part of it. And so that is my biggest concern.”
The money part of it is this: The state spent $42 million in the just-completed school year for vouchers for about 7,100 students, mostly minority children in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, who qualified for them.
Families have to be classified as low-income to get the assistance, and aside from kindergartners, students have to be attending public schools rated C, D or F.
Just $36 million has been designated for vouchers at this point in the state budgeting process for the next school year.
Backers say $42 million is needed for all the current voucher recipients to keep them, and $47 million to handle another 1,000 to 1,500 students who want them.
What happens if $36 million is the final figure is in dispute.
Edwards, a longtime critic of vouchers, has said each voucher could be trimmed by about 10 percent and all the current recipients could stay in the program.
State Superintendent of Education John White has said it would be “at least legally questionable” for the state to unilaterally cut voucher amounts.
Ann Duplessis, president of the pro-voucher Louisiana Federation for Children, said families cannot absorb a 10 percent cut and about 1,100 students would be forced out of the program.
“We are talking about real people,” Duplessis said.
“How do you choose which child doesn’t get a scholarship? And we are so late in the game. It is June, and school starts in August,” she said.
Vouchers were made a statewide program, not just one in New Orleans, in 2012 as part of former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s sweeping overhaul of public schools.
The state aid for tuition at private schools averages about $5,000.
Backers say the assistance offers families a way for children to escape troubled public schools. Opponents call vouchers a drain on dollars desperately needed by public schools.
The critics also have cited low test scores by voucher students as well as studies critical of the program.
A report released in February for research groups linked to Tulane University and the University of Arkansas said Louisiana’s voucher program hurt the classroom performance of students who use the money to attend private schools.
In December, a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass., said vouchers are actually hurting student achievement.
State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, a veteran member of the House Education Committee, noted that state aid for public schools may fall by $44 million for the 2016-17 school year.
“I would not put that money into a raise for (vouchers) for the mere fact that we will not be able to fund our public schools,” said Smith, a former member of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.
Nailing down exactly how many students could get vouchers if the state spends $36 million, $42 million or $47 million is tricky.
Nearly 11,000 students have applied for vouchers, but state officials expect only about 8,000 to enroll for the 2016-17 school year, if the dollars are available.
About 6,000 to 6,500 of last year’s roughly 7,100 voucher students are expected to want them again.
If the state spends $36 million for the program, that would accommodate a little more than 6,000 students, White said.
“It most certainly won’t be able to accommodate between 1,500 and 2,000 new students,” he said.
Whether schools with voucher students — about 130 statewide — would be willing to settle for reduced payments from the state, such as the 10 percent cut envisioned by Edwards, is unclear.
Russell Marino, executive director of Hosanna Christian Academy in Baton Rouge, said families that depend on the program would be hard-pressed to come up with the difference.
“Most of the families cannot afford that,” he said. “There is no discretionary money in that household.”
Up to 90 percent of the roughly 450 students at Hosanna depend on vouchers.
While Edwards is a critic of vouchers, he told a joint session of the Legislature last week that the state needs more money for a variety of reasons, including a $75 million shortfall for public schools.
That figure includes $6 million to keep voucher funding at the current level — $42 million.
Johnson’s sons Micah, 12 and Nehemiah, 13, attend Hosanna Christian Academy, and she prefers Hosanna, by a wide margin, over their public schools.
“They can’t go back to public school,” she said.
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