Whether all voucher recipients keep them amid state budget problems largely depends on how many students try to renew the aid for the next school year, state Superintendent of Education John White said Thursday.
White told the Senate Finance Committee that, even with Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proposed 14 percent cut in voucher dollars, the state “potentially” could have enough dollars for all 7,100 who get it now.
He said the key issue is whether all the students who got the aid for the 2015-16 school year try to collect it for the 2016-17 school year.
“The governor’s point has been that he doesn’t expect that to happen,” White said in an interview after the meeting. “I think that is a very reasonable point.”
However, if voucher requests exceed available dollars, including current recipients, some parents will have to be told the aid is not available, White said.
“I hope we don’t have to make hard choices,” he told the committee. “We might.”
Vouchers were the dominant topic during the committee’s review of the state Department of Education’s proposed $5.3 billion budget starting July 1.
The House last week passed its version of Louisiana’s operating budget. That plan is under review by the Senate, and a compromise version will be hammered out before adjournment on June 6.
Vouchers are state aid for students from low-income families who attend troubled public schools to attend private schools. Most of the recipients attend schools in New Orleans and Baton Rouge and are minorities.
White backs vouchers. Edwards is a longtime critic of the aid.
Under the governor’s budget plan, state aid for vouchers would slide from $42 million to $36 million.
“$36 million is not enough to accommodate any more children,” White said.
About 8,000 students are expected to accept offers for the next school year, which would cost the state $47 million.
Asked if the governor wanted to comment, Shauna Sanford, the governor’s press secretary, noted Edwards is constitutionally obligated to present a balanced budget, which in this case reflects a $600 million shortfall.
“That means all state government, including health care and education, will have to sustain cuts that he otherwise would not propose,” Sanford said in email.
“However, based on our conversations with the Department of Education, all current voucher recipients would still receive scholarships for the upcoming school year,” she said.
Edwards said last month he thinks that, even with the 14 percent cut, students getting the aid now could keep it by the state cutting individual vouchers by 10 percent.
White said his reading of state law would not allow for such a cut.
Whether private schools eventually agree to trim tuition rather than turning away students “is a discussion that needs to be had,” he said.
But no such talks will happen until the Legislature finalizes the budget for vouchers and other state services.
Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, said she has heard some schools segregate paying students from those attending a private school with state aid.
“It just makes me wonder if they are receiving the same level of education,” Barrow said of voucher students.
White said that, even if students are denied vouchers, they still cost the state through the fund that finances public schools.
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