Why Louisiana vouchers suddenly under microscope, face unclear future _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- state Rep. Patricia Smith. ORG XMIT: BAT1504141250252617

Just four years after vouchers were launched statewide, the future of the program is unclear.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, wants to freeze the program at current levels — about 7,100 students.

Whether Gov. John Bel Edwards’ budget for the 2016-17 school year even includes money for the program is in dispute.

And two recent reports say the performance of students getting vouchers to attend private or parochial schools actually suffered, which undercuts the chief argument of backers.

“I think there should be some revamping of the program if we are going to keep it,” Smith said.

All three developments mark a sharp turnaround from 2012, when former Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature made what used to be a New Orleans-only program for the families of low-income children into a statewide effort.

Edwards favors new curbs on vouchers.

The new governor’s key allies, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and Louisiana Association of Educators teacher unions, are longtime critics of the program and now enjoy new influence at the State Capitol.

In addition, the $2 billion shortfall for the fiscal year starting July 1 puts most state spending under unusual scrutiny, including the $42 million spent on vouchers.

Vouchers are state aid that allow students in public schools rated C, D or F to attend private or parochial schools at the state’s expense. Minority students make up the overwhelming majority of recipients, and more than half attend schools in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Voucher opponents say the program diverts scarce state resources away from public schools, among other drawbacks.

Supporters contend that, despite the recent criticism, vouchers offer students a lifeline out of troubled public schools and save the state money. “At the end of the day, the parents of the students are the ones who say they want this,” said Ann Duplessis, president of the pro-voucher Louisiana Federation for Children.

“Imagine the panic and stress that these families are going through just hearing all this rhetoric,” said Duplessis, a former state senator from New Orleans.

Tikisha Kelly, who has second- and fourth-graders attending St. Benedict the Moor School in Gentilly Woods in New Orleans on vouchers, is one of those concerned parents.

Kelly said her children, Raeyonna and Jaden, have thrived in the parochial school, where they are A students and enjoy the smaller classrooms that public schools don’t offer.

“I am worried,” she said. “I am very concerned about losing the vouchers.”

Smith, a veteran member of the House Education Committee, has filed legislation for the regular session that starts March 14 that would limit vouchers to students who already have them.

Another prefiled measure — House Bill 126 — would only allow kindergarten students to get the aid if they would otherwise attend public schools rated D or F.

Edwards sponsored a similar bill when he was a state representative.

“I don’t think it is fair that they have allowed schools to just take kindergarten students,” Smith said.

Even the immediate future of vouchers is murky.

A bill that won House approval on Thursday — House Bill 122 — would strip voucher money from the Department of Education budget for the current school year as part of a $100 million package of spending reductions. That measure is awaiting action in the Senate.

The governor’s proposed budget document for the 2016-17 school year says $42.1 million for vouchers is included.

But state education officials say the aid actually comes from a fund that would be gutted under Edwards’ budget.

Brigitte Nieland, who follows public school issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said the program saves the state $23 million per year — costing it about $5,000 per voucher student versus about $8,800 for public school students — and includes rigid state oversight. “Cutting vouchers won’t save a dime,” Nieland said.

Smith, a former member of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, questioned the quality of some private schools that have accepted voucher students, which mirrors earlier criticism by Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera.

Critics also have seized on two reports critical of how students who get vouchers do in the classroom.

The National Bureau of Economic Research said that, in the first year vouchers went statewide, students getting them did worse academically than if they had remained in problem public schools.

On Feb. 22, a group at Tulane University issued a report saying students who get the assistance showed negative results in the first two years, especially in math.

Duplessis said those students often started 20 percentile points behind the state average but have shown solid gains since changing schools.

“So I see that we are moving in the right direction, and we are moving in the right direction at a clear, steady pace,” she said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.