06.27.2012 0

Voucher Applications Roll in Louisiana Despite Legal Challenges from Teachers Unions

By Kevin Mooney — Parents and students who are ambitious to switch out of failing public schools have until June 30 to become part of history. That is the cut-off date for applications to be submitted to the state education department for scholarship funds that can be used to cover the full cost of private school tuition.

In May, the state lawmakers approved what is arguably the most audacious and far reaching school voucher program in the entire country at the behest of Gov. Bobby Jindal. Under the new legislation (SB 597), any Louisiana student enrolled in a school with a C grade or lower would be eligible to apply for a voucher. That student must also be part of a household with an income that does exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty rate, or $57,625 for a family of four. This means about 380,000 students out of 700,000 statewide would be eligible to apply, according to government figures.

Although the voucher program has attracted considerable media attention, it is just one small part of a wider mix of reforms, Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel (R-Metaire), explained. A total of 5,100 seats at private and religious schools will be open to voucher applicants. This is in addition to the 2,300 seats that are available to voucher students in New Orleans where a pilot scholarship program has been up and running since 2008. The Louisiana Department of Education has published a list of participating schools, and the number of spaces available for voucher students in each school.

“We are very pleased with the way participating schools have approached the program,” Nicholas Bolt, deputy chief of staff to the Department of Education said. “In general, I would say the schools are moving at a gradual pace to see how many students they can accommodate. One key lesson we learned out of New Orleans is that the program has the potential to grow, and perhaps grow significantly over time.”

By the end of July, applicants will know whether or not they have been accepted as voucher recipients. In the meantime, the Black Alliance for Educational Opportunity (BAEO), a leading proponent of school choice, has been holding expos throughout the state where organizers field questions about the scholarship application process.

“We have to make it as easy and straightforward as possible for parents to access information,” Bolt said. “It’s important for schools to be as upfront as possible about what the requirements are and what is expected. That’s been a vital part of the success in New Orleans, and it’s what needs to happen statewide.”

The lottery system education officials will use to fill open seats prioritizes students who are already scholarship recipients in New Orleans and prospective students who have siblings in the program. Applicants who are in D and  F schools are also prioritized over students who are in C schools.

Marian Feritta, superintendent for the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, said the Catholic schools relish the challenge of bringing new students, but also said it was important to avoid over-reaching.

“We are very excited to have the opportunity to provide a choice for students who would not normally have any other option than to remain where they are,” she said. “It is part of our mission as Catholic schools to provide a Catholic education to anyone who wants it.”

Students who are backed by engaged parents and devoted teachers respond very effectively when high standards are set, Feritta added.

Bolt, the education department chief of staff, concurs. He notes that test scores for scholarship recipients in New Orleans have moved up. The department’s figures show that the proportion of  voucher recipients scoring at or even above grade level has jumped by 7 percent since the pilot program was put in place.

Even so, Fertitta prefers to start gradually.

“We certainly do not want to set anyone up for failure,” Fertitta said . “That’s why we’d rather have three for four seats opened that we could handle, instead of say seven or eight. That would not be fair to the teachers or the students.”

Teachers Unions Sidestep U.S. Supreme Court Ruling

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of school vouchers in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which involved a pilot scholarship program in Ohio. The Court ruled that the program did not violate the First Amendment’s establishment of religion clause. Even so, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation Teachers (AFT) have worked successfully to block policy changes throughout the country that would allow for school vouchers.

The Louisiana Association of Educators (LEA) and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) have both filed multiple lawsuits against the funding formula used to pay for the statewide scholarship program. The LFT is also challenging the tenure changes Gov. Jindal signed into law.  Under the new rules, a teacher rated as “ineffective” could lose tenure. It is also more difficult for new teachers to obtain tenure unless they are rated as being “highly effective.”

In a floor note submitted to state lawmakers, the LFT also argued that the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP), should not be used to support the statewide voucher program. The MFP if the formula used to determine how much money per child each school district receives; this averages to about $8,500 per student. Voucher proponents claim the state is likely to save money on the program since the cost for most private schools tends to be much lower. They can range from $3,000 to $5,000 per student.

“Our constitutional objection does not hinge on the issue of separation between church and state,” the LFT floor note says. “The issue here is very simple. The proposed MFP sets aside the [Louisiana] Constitution and provides state education funds to non-public schools.”

Jindal’s education department has indicated that will vigorously defend the scholarship program.

“We are confident that not only is the scholarship program sought by thousands of Louisiana families, but also that it is fully compliant with our state’s constitution,” Bolt said.

As of 2011, over 200,000 students in 18 states, including the District of Columbia were on the receiving end of vouchers, tuition tax credits or education savings accounts, according to the Heritage Foundation. President Obama de-funded the D.C. scholarship program earlier this year, but House Speaker John Boehner recently intervened to help save the program. Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst with the Washington D.C.-based think tank, anticipates that Gov. Jindal’s school choice initiatives could reverberate across state lines.

Kevin Mooney is a contributing editor to Americans for Limited Government. You can follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinMooneyDC.

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