- Associated Press - Friday, August 12, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Superintendent of Education John White said Friday he is asking private schools to consider taking voucher students for free, at least temporarily, in hopes state lawmakers will later reimburse the schools.

White is trying to shrink a voucher wait list that contains 362 students, after lawmakers and Gov. John Bel Edwards levied a cut on the program to help balance this year’s budget. It would cost the state about $2 million to honor the vouchers for the students on the waiting list.

The state’s education superintendent said enrolling those students in public schools will cost nearly the same amount, so lawmakers will have to find money to pay the expense either way before the budget year ends in June 2017.

Lawmakers are required to pay for every student who shows up at a public school under the state constitution, while financing for the voucher program is discretionary. White argues the Legislature shouldn’t constrain the voucher program and make eligible students attend public schools.

“This policy is undemocratic. It’s un-American. It’s unfair. It is a violation of the civil rights of people who are not wealthy enough to pay” for private school tuition, he said.

He estimated the state’s average cost per student on the voucher waiting list would be $5,575 to attend a private school, compared to $5,250 at a public school.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric LaFleur D-Ville Platte, said while he understands White’s point, the state’s taxpayers put a higher priority on financing public education when they gave it protection in the state constitution. He said he doesn’t expect lawmakers will agree to shuffle more money to vouchers.

More than 7,000 students from low- to moderate-income families receive taxpayer-financed tuition from the Louisiana Scholarship Program.

The voucher program spent $42 million in the last budget year, White said, but received slightly less than $40 million for the current fiscal year that began July 1. Public school education also took a reduction, along with many programs across state government, amid budget gaps.

White sent a letter Friday to LaFleur and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry urging state reimbursement for private schools that take students on the voucher wait list, when lawmakers return for their regular legislative session in the spring.

LaFleur said that request was unrealistic, particularly as the state faces continued financial problems. He said lawmakers decided already how much they were willing to spend on vouchers.

White’s reached out to private schools to see if they’ll accept students without payment for now, with the risk they might not get reimbursed for the tuition costs at all. The schools have to agree in writing to accept the possibility of “a nominal payment from the state of less than $100 per child for the year,” White said.

The education department will have a list by Aug. 22 of which of the 130 schools in the voucher program have agreed to take students on the waiting list without guaranteed funding from the state. He said some private school leaders already indicated a willingness to participate in the gamble, but he didn’t know how many students they’ll take.

“It could be dozens. It could be hundreds. I don’t expect it will be all,” White said.

LaFleur said while that’s a “great gesture,” the schools shouldn’t anticipate reimbursement.

“They’re not taking a risk. They’re making a donation to the state of Louisiana. That’s what I think they’re doing,” he said.


Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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