School (stock) _lowres

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Nearly one out of three students who thought they would get a voucher for the 2016-17 school year are going on a waiting list instead, officials said Thursday.

Letters notifying families of the latest developments were mailed last week, just days before classes start.

Earlier 1,480 new applicants for the aid accepted the awards and registered with their new school.

However, 442 of those students have been put on hold because of state budget problems.

Vouchers are state aid that allows children from low-income families who attend troubled public schools to attend private schools.

Backers say the program offers students a way out of problem classrooms.

Critics call the aid a waste of state dollars, and cite studies that show low test scores at some of the schools that accept the students.

The state spent $42 million on the program for the 2015-16 school year.

That was trimmed by $2.5 million for the 2016-17 school year amid Louisiana's worst budget crisis since the 1980s.

State Superintendent of Education John White said Thursday the notifications have set off alarms.

"We started getting calls from families," White said. 

"They have called legislators, legislators are calling us," he said. "But it shouldn't be a surprise to any of us in government that when you cut a program that exists to help people who can't pay for school themselves now they won't be able to pay for school."

About 7,100 student got the awards for the past school year.

How many will be enrolled this time is unclear.

Most of the recipients are minorities, and most live in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Current voucher holders were allowed to retain the aid, according to department documents.

However, in some cases siblings will be split in where they attend school because hopes that a brother or sister would join them fell through.

Once enrollment is taken for the first quarter of school, some students on the waiting list will qualify for the aid, state officials said.

"It is just a shame we have to put a disclaimer on this and play a game of last-minute brinkmanship," White said of the earlier awards, which noted that they were subject to state dollars being available.

Vouchers have been a highly-charged topic, especially this year.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a longtime critic of vouchers, was accused earlier this year of breaking a campaign promise not to reduce the program. Edwards denied the charge and said current recipients of the aid would keep it.

Asked if the governor wanted to comment Shauna Sanford, a spokeswoman for the governor, said "Unfortunately, all areas of government are having to take cuts to fill the remaining budget shortfall, including K-12 education, higher education and health care.

"However, all current recipients will be keeping their scholarships," Sanford said. "Gov. Edwards had a plan to fully fund state government, but some members of the Legislature blocked that effort and didn't offer a plan of their own."

Ann Duplessis, president of the pro-voucher group Louisiana Federation for Children, called the latest developments heartbreaking.

"We are now a week or two before school starts," Duplessis said.

"Imagine the confusion that these families are in," she said. "It is just incredible."

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.