Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday he proposed cutting state aid for vouchers 14 percent because of Louisiana’s historic financial crisis, not because of any sudden turnaround in his education views.
“When you have a large budget deficit, you have to make adjustments,” Edwards told reporters.
“It is just a function of arithmetic,” he said later. “It is the reality of the situation we are in.”
The governor made his comments two days after a pro-voucher group — the Louisiana Federation for Children — launched a statewide TV ad campaign accusing Edwards of breaking his campaign vow to not slash state aid for the program. The group said about 1,000 students stand to lose their vouchers if Edwards’ proposal to cut aid from $42 million now to $36 million becomes reality.
Edwards, a critic of vouchers, bristled at the group’s charge that he is a liar.
“I have consistently said I was not going to end the voucher program, nor would I propose taking away vouchers from students who already receive them,” he said. “I have been good to that word.”
Vouchers are payments to low-income families, mostly minorities, whose children attend troubled public schools.
The aid, which is going to about 7,100 students now, allows them to attend private schools. Most of the children who get the aid live in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
The state faces a $600 million shortfall for the financial year that begins July 1.
Edwards said that, under his plan, the value of each voucher will be trimmed by about 10 percent to allow all current recipients to keep them, even with a 14 percent cut in state aid.
“Superintendent (John) White informed me that he believes he will be able to make it work so that the participating schools would accept the vouchers at a reduced amount by about 10 percent,” he said.
Ann Duplessis, president of the Louisiana Federation for Children, said Thursday that trimming voucher amounts would force families off the program because they could not cover the gap.
Duplessis also said that, even in a major budget crisis, a 14 percent reduction for vouchers is out of line compared with many state programs.
“Everybody has taken a cut but not at the level that he has recommended this program be cut,” she said.
Near the end of the news conference, several ministers and parents who back the program briefly questioned the governor.
Edwards said his voucher stance has been consistent, and at one point, he told the group it was congregating with “folks that called me a liar.”
One of the parents on hand, Corinne Celestine, of New Orleans, said her family gets a voucher to pay the $6,000 per year tuition so her 10-year-old, Corissa, can attend St. Mary’s Academy.
A $1,000 cut, she said, would end her ability to keep attending St. Mary’s.
“We’ll have to go to the public school,” Celestine said.
Earlier Thursday, two teachers unions allied with Edwards, saying criticism of the governor’s proposed cuts in state aid for vouchers is dishonest.
The comments were made in a prepared statement by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators.
Both groups are longtime critics of vouchers, which they said amount to a “scheme to funnel state funds to private and religious schools.”
Edwards said state aid for vouchers has risen by about 5 percent yearly, while state aid for public schools has mostly been frozen for the past seven or eight years.
Mark Ballard, of The Advocate Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report.
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