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Baton Rouge Bishop Robert Muench, left, blesses the new Cristo Rey Baton Rouge Franciscan High School in an Aug. 5, 2016 ceremony. He's flanked by seminarian James Wallbillich, center, and Cristo Rey campus minister Brian Tullier, right,

Advocate staff file photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING

As budget cuts have led Louisiana private schools to cut back on the number of children they enroll via vouchers, these schools are turning increasingly to a less generous but more flexible tax rebate program that also benefits low-income children at public expense.

The better known Louisiana Scholarship Program, commonly known as vouchers, covers the full tuition of children who qualify. It currently costs taxpayers almost $40 million a year.

The Tuition Donation Rebate Program, by contrast, was little known until recently. It relies on private donations from individuals or corporations to finance part, but not all, of a child’s private school tuition. The donors can eventually recoup 95 cents for every dollar they give to a scholarship, while also being allowed to claim the charitable donation on federal taxes.

The Louisiana Scholarship Program is currently providing vouchers for just shy of 6,700 children to attend private schools. That’s 415 slots fewer than a year ago. It’s the fewest recipients the program has had since vouchers were expanded statewide in 2012.

Meanwhile, the tax rebate program has more than doubled in size after a slow start. Only 16 children benefited its first year. That has grown to 1,672 students, about 900 more than a year ago. Its costs have gone up as well, from just $61,000 in its first year to an estimated $7 million this year.

Rebates are also attracting schools that shied away from vouchers. While 121 private schools are currently accepting vouchers this year, little changed from last year, 167 schools are accepting rebates. That’s 61 more than year ago. And 79 private schools are using both.

Cristo Rey Baton Rouge Franciscan High School in Baton Rouge reflects this shift. Cristo Rey, a network of 32 schools in 21 states, has an unusual financial and instructional model requiring students to work at white collar businesses at least one day a week. The businesses in turn pay for part of the tuition of their student workers.

For its first school in Louisiana, Cristo Rey planned to make use of the state’s public financing options for private schools. Initially, that involved using vouchers. But several months into planning for the school, which opened in August, organizers changed their minds and opted for the tax rebates instead. Cristo Rey also conducts additional private fundraising.

Creshona Cupil’s twins sons, Nicholas & Micah, are in the inaugural ninth grade for this school. After spending middle school at a public school in Baker, Cupil was looking at high school options when she heard about Cristo Rey.

It’s been a tougher year than she bargained for. Cristo Rey, which had taken over the campus of the former Redemptorist Catholic High School, was flooded in August and relocated to the Bon Carré Technology Park on Florida Boulevard. That’s much farther away from Baker than she’d prefer.

Still, she said, the school so far has been good for her sons, who want to become a game designer and a sports attorney, respectively. And the tuition isn’t bad at all: $500 a year for each boy.

“I would highly recommend it for someone who is looking for options,” Cupil said.

Lots of Louisiana families, four out of every 10, potentially qualify for the rebate-funded scholarships. They must earn no more than 250 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $60,000 a year for a family of four. That’s the same income threshold used for the voucher program.

Both programs limit scholarships to children who have attended public schools the year before, unless they are just starting kindergarten. Voucher students, however, have to come from public schools with a letter grade no better than a C. Rebate kids, by contrast, can come from any public school.

The rebates have other upsides for private schools. Unlike vouchers, private schools can still pick and choose their students using the admission criteria they have for their other students. At Cristo Rey, the school tries to balance its mission of helping disadvantaged children while finding children who are likely to be able to cope with a college prep curriculum combined with a part-time job. Cupil said she likes the student mix.

“I like the fact that it’s a smaller student setting and that (the school) can be selective about the student they take,” she said.

Rebate scholarships, by design, cover only part of the tuition. The voucher program, by contrast, requires private schools to treat the payment as full tuition and fees.

The maximum payout for vouchers is roughly $9,000 a year, about twice the maximum payout for rebates of $4,100 for elementary and $4,600 for high schools. The average per-student voucher payment last year was about $5,800 a year compared with an average of about $4,200 a year for rebates.

And while rebate students, like voucher students, must take state standardized tests, the results cannot be used to cut private schools out of the program that fall short. Several large voucher schools that failed to make the grade were cut off. That has forced the closure of several private schools, including Redemptorist High in 2015.

No school accepting rebate children has as yet had enough children of test-taking age to generate a school score.

That’s changing. Nineteen Louisiana private schools now have more than 20 children on rebated-funded scholarships, with Cristo Rey’s 69 ninth-graders ranking the second highest in the state.

The school with the most is St. Anthony School, a Catholic school in Gretna that has 74 students on rebate-funded scholarships as well as 106 students with vouchers. Combined, they represent 85 percent of all students in the school.

Still, publicly funding private schooling remains the exception not the rule. Students who receive such aid represent about 7 percent of all children in private schools in Louisiana. If you add public schools, those students represent about 1 percent of all students in elementary and secondary schools in the state.

Meanwhile, the largest public and private schools in Louisiana are still largely avoiding either vouchers or rebates, but that’s changing.

Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, which has almost 1,200 students, took in a handful of rebate-funded children this year. The Dunham School in Baton Rouge, which has about 700 students, was an early adopter of vouchers, but never had more than a handful. It recently added a few more children who are using rebates.

About 12 percent of Louisiana private schools have more than half their children on some form of public assistance, and four of those schools have every student in that camp.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The data included in this story was culled from the state Department of Education and the Alliance for School Choice, which does an annual report on school choice across the nation.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier