In a new voucher controversy, the Legislative Fiscal Office says the state Department of Education is wrong to claim that vouchers are saving the state more than $20 million per year.
In reality, sending those students to public schools, instead, would save the state over $8 million, according to a review dated Monday.
The issue is at the heart of a dispute that erupted on Friday involving the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and state Superintendent of Education John White.
In the end, BESE members declined to receive a seemingly routine report from White’s agency that said vouchers saved taxpayers $23.6 million in the 2014-15 school year.
“The message is wrong,” BESE member Doris Voitier said of the report.
The topic is especially relevant in the midst of Louisiana’s budget crisis, including a special session that ends on Wednesday aimed at closing a $900 million shortfall by June 30.
In addition, the dustup marks the third time in recent weeks that vouchers have come under fire, with two previous reports saying the program hurt academic performance.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a critic of vouchers, is expected to push for new restrictions on the assistance in the regular session that begins Monday.
Vouchers are state aid that allows about 7,100 low-income students previously in C, D or F public schools to attend private schools at state expense.
The state is spending $42 million for the aid in the current school year.
Nearly 40 percent of voucher students attend schools in New Orleans and 16 percent in Baton Rouge, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office report.
The education department, in its “Louisiana Nonpublic School Choice 2015 Annual Report,” says vouchers saved taxpayers the $23.6 million because it cost $3,309 less per voucher student than those attending public schools — $5,545 versus $8,854.
However, the Legislative Fiscal Office report says figures cited in the department study combined both state and local aid for public school students.
What state payments alone average for vouchers — $5,852 — is actually $656 more than what it pays for public school students — $5,196.
“DOE (Department of Education) reports that the program saves taxpayers in excess of $20 million annually,” the Legislative Fiscal Office study says. “However, the LFO estimates that the state will pay $8.3 million more to the voucher schools than it would have paid through the MFP in the current year.”
The MFP is the Minimum Foundation Program, which is used to allocate $3.7 billion in state aid to public school students statewide.
The Legislative Fiscal Office is an independent agency that assists the state House and Senate.
The voucher comments are part of a 134-page review of the governor’s budget for the financial year that begins July 1.
Ken Pastorick, a spokesman for the department, said the education review and Legislative Fiscal Office study “are different and use different methodologies.
“The department report takes into account the entire costs, state and local, to educate the child in the public schools compared to the scholarship program.
“The methodology clearly shows a savings of $23.6 million to local taxpayers,” Pastorick added.
Groups that have long criticized vouchers have seized on the department’s study.
“I think we have an integrity problem in the report,” said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.
“When you have a state general fund allocation of about $42 million that is dedicated to a voucher program that is (portrayed) as saving taxpayers dollars and at the end of the day it is really not that is a significant issue for our state policymakers,” Richard said.
Backers say the aid offers students a way out of troubled public schools, and they argue that voucher students are showing steady academic progress in their new schools.
The issue surfaced on Friday near the end of a two-day BESE meeting, including a roughly 12-hour gathering the day before on Common Core revisions and other volatile topics.
Gary Jones, a new BESE member from Alexandria, joined Voitier in criticizing the department report.
“If we reject it, does it create any long-term problems?” Jones asked.
BESE voted to delete the report from its agenda.
White said Friday he will work with BESE members on revising the study.
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