Governor John Bel Edwards cut the budget for the state’s school voucher program last month, citing the state budget crisis. That means the state was unable to fund scholarships for 500 students, who had already been awarded the vouchers to attend private schools. This left poor, mostly black parents scraping together money to pay tuition or scrambling to get their kids in a failing government school before schools started.
Louisiana Education Secretary John White today stepped up with a proposal to help get these kids into school. In exchange for accepting essentially an I.O.U from the state, private schools would be able accept scholarship students.
In his letter, he outlined his proposal.
Under the laws of our state, the Legislature must send additional funds to public schools to account for students not originally accounted for in the budget passed in June. This action typically occurs in the spring of the school year in question. However, the Legislature has no such obligation for publicly funded nonpublic schools; even when the budget underestimates the number of students seeking to enroll in these schools, the Legislature is not required to provide additional funds. Therefore, as of today, 362 low-income children whose parents chose a nonpublic school more than six months ago through the Student Scholarship for Educational Excellence Program sit on a waiting list.
The situation is made all the more tragic by this fact: if the parents of these children determine that they can wait no longer for funds to materialize and decide to send their children to public schools, the Legislature will and must provide funding to educate these children.
State funding, therefore, is not the barrier to honoring these parents’ choices. The barrier is state policy. Rather than allowing these low-income parents to choose the school that is best for their children, our state’s policies allow the government to make that decision for them by committing funds for every child in some schools while placing limits on the funds available to other schools.
This policy is undemocratic and unfair. It puts at grave risk the civil rights of families who are not wealthy enough to pay tuition at schools they believe will best educate their children.
As Louisianans, we cannot accept this situation. I write today to inform you that the Department of Education has initiated a plan whereby schools with students on the waiting list may enroll these students if the schools agree in writing to accept a potential “worst case scenario” of a nominal payment from the state of less than $100 per child for the year. In the spring, when the Legislature analyzes how many additional students are in public schools and the additional funds thereby owed to public schools,I will request that the Legislature similarly analyze the number of additional students enrolled by these nonpublic schools and that the Legislature commit appropriate and full funding to those schools as well.
Secretary White is correct, the issue is not state funding. Louisiana increased its overall state budget for this year. The issue is the policy of the state of Louisiana and the fact that we have a governor who serves the interests of teachers’ unions, not children.
I’m typing this from a hotel room in Denver. I was privileged to attend a Franklin Center seminar on school choice for the past couple of days. Colorado’s lawmakers, in both parties, have chosen to put their children first. The state has been an innovator in school choice with lots of charter schools, open enrollment policies, and even experiments with vouchers on the county level.
Meanwhile, Louisiana’s bloated government schools continue to fail our children. Since 1992, Louisiana’s K-12 student population has shrunk 10%, but the state has increased its government school administrators by 144%. The extra staffing has cost Louisiana taxpayers $1.6 billion according to EdChoice. Just this past legislative session, education reformers had to fight off attempts to restrict charter schools and gut the voucher program.
Secretary White may have provided an opening for some of Louisiana’s poorest schoolchildren to receive an education. Let’s hope some of these schools decide to take a risk and open their doors to these children.
More importantly, we need to continue the fight to give parents the choice to send their children to the schools that best serve their needs.