Gov. John Bel Edwards says Republican rival Eddie Rispone was the "godfather" behind the statewide expansion of a controversial program that provides state aid for some students to attend private schools.

"He has got to bear some responsibility," Edwards said in an interview. 

"He was the champion. He was the guy who talked Bobby Jindal into pushing this in 2012," he said.

In a separate interview, Rispone said Edwards was exaggerating his influence in expanding the aid, called vouchers, and that the governor has opposed school choice since he entered politics.

"He has fought accountability since day one," Rispone said. "It is all about more money and less accountability."

Edwards, a Democrat seeking his second term, faces Baton Rouge businessman Rispone in the Nov. 16 runoff.

Republican Jindal made statewide expansion of vouchers a key part of his 2012 legislative package designed to improve Louisiana's long-suffering public schools.

The program was previously limited to New Orleans.

The change allowed some public school students statewide in low-income homes to move from troubled public schools to private schools.

Backers said the law offered children a lifeline out of a sub-standard education, and about 7,000 students get vouchers today.

But the program has been plagued by controversy, including complaints about the quality of schools that accepted voucher students and how those students fared in the classroom.

"The program was so poorly designed from the outset," said Edwards, who as a member of the state House of Representatives opposed the measure.

"There is not the accountability that we need," he said. "Some of the worst schools in the state are voucher schools."

Edwards' campaign said the public record shows clearly that Rispone was heavily involved in pushing vouchers in 2011 and 2012, undercutting his claims to being a political outsider.

At the time Rispone was chairman of the Louisiana Federation for Children, the state's top voucher advocacy group.

He held the post from 2011-18.

During a 2012 meeting of the American Federation for Children – the national group with Louisiana and other affiliates – Rispone recounted in detail moving from his work with state officials on workforce development in 2005 to later concluding that improving public schools was the key to boosting Louisiana's outlook.

Rispone also recalled meeting with Jindal before the 2012 vouchers debate and working with business and pro-voucher groups to drum up support for the expansion, and using the AFC questionnaire along the way.

"You first of all have to have the governor," he told the group then. "You have to have a governor who feels strongly about choice and puts the children first."

However, he rejected the idea that he is the "godfather" of vouchers.

"No indeed," he said Monday. "They (vouchers) were already existing when I got on the scene. New Orleans already had vouchers."

Rispone agreed that the program has flaws, including private schools getting overwhelmed after admitting students behind their peers academically.

"I would say this, it was done in a hurry, OK?" he said. "Some of those schools took those children in and were not prepared to take that many children that far behind."

Edwards said he opposed the legislation as a House member in 2012 because it was unconstitutional.

The courts later agreed that vouchers could not be financed from the fund that pays for public schools, called the Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP.

The roughly $40 million used for vouchers is now a separate appropriation.

Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, was a key aide to Jindal in 2012.

Waguespack said Tuesday he does not recall Rispone playing a major role in Jindal's push for a statewide voucher program.

"What I recall is Bobby believed that program was a pathway for kids to get out of poverty," he said. "I don't recall anything of where Eddie was on that."

Waguespack and LABI have clashed with the governor on taxes and other issues.

In 2016 Rispone's Louisiana Federation for Children launched statewide television ads – financed by Rispone – that accused Edwards of lying when he promised not to slash state aid for vouchers.

The governor said at the time the ads were false and that he only proposed a cut because the state faced a historic budget crisis. "That is what set him off," Edwards said last week.

The voucher program eventually avoided budget reductions that year.

The governor's campaign, citing a newspaper story in The Advocate, said the episode was a catalyst for Rispone's decision to run for governor.

Vouchers have been criticized for failing to produce significant gains on test scores. At the same time, parents of the mostly minority students who get the aid say say they are largely satisfied with the assistance.

"What the parents are happy about is the child was in a safe environment, was not getting bullied and had teachers that cared about them," Rispone said.

Edwards, who as governor has unsuccessfully tried to put curbs on the program, said more accountability is needed now that the state has a track record on its performance.

He said voucher schools can enter the program by filling out a simple questionnaire and without a site visit from state officials.

"We should do better than that," the governor said.

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