Hundreds leaving local public schools
Published 12:15 am Saturday, February 6, 2016
St. John School Board, District leaders ask legislators for voucher help
LAPLACE — More than 360 students have left St. John the Baptist Parish Public Schools since 2012 through Louisiana’s voucher system, a disturbing trend local school leaders say puts the School District at an economic disadvantage.
Superintendent Kevin George told members of the parish’s state legislative delegation a majority of the departing students are attending Riverside Academy and local private elementary schools.
George said the loss of the students reduces the school district’s Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) funding, a formula Louisiana adopts annually to allocate money to school districts on a per-pupil basis.
Less students means less funding, but the cost of running the School District has not changed, according to George.
“We’ve already lost close to 400 students to vouchers,” George said Wednesday. “If they all left Lake Pontchartrain Elementary, it would be pretty easy for the School Board. We’d close that school and just cut out all those costs and move on.
“What is happening is we’re losing 25 from this school, 30 from that school and 17 from this school and it adds up to 362. Really, we can’t save a dime when we lose kids from all over the District. We still have to provide the same level of service but now with almost 400 students less in MFP dollars and less in our local share dollars.”
The conversation on state funding, vouchers and the growth of charter schools in Louisiana was part of a special-called meeting of the School Board Wednesday at Frenier Landing Restaurant and Oyster Bar. Called a Legislative Summit, state Rep. Randal L. Gaines (D-LaPlace), state Rep. Gregory A. Miller (R-Norco) and state Sen. Gary Smith Jr. (D-Norco) were in attendance.
George and District 8 School Board Member Russ Wise took the opportunity to stress what they said was an unfair system for the state’s public schools to compete in concerning vouchers.
Known as the Louisiana Scholarship Program, the Louisiana Department of Education says the program empowers low-income families to have the same opportunity as more affluent parents: The financial resources to send their child to the school of their choice.
To be eligible for a Scholarship, students must have a family income that does not exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines and must be entering kindergarten or enrolled in a public school with a C, D or F grade.
According to the state department, Scholarship students must take the same assessments as students in public schools. Student achievement on those assessments is used to determine the status of a school’s continued participation in the program.
Launched in 2008 in New Orleans, the Program expanded statewide in 2012. For the current school year, the state department said more than 12,000 students applied for a Scholarship and nearly 7,200 students accepted a Scholarship and enrolled in a participating, state-approved private school.
“Private and parochial schools are not on the same playing field,” Wise said. “They have absolutely no accountability to the state for the money they’re receiving or even the parents. There is no way for the parents in this choice concept to make an apples-to-apples comparison between private schools, parochial schools and public schools, because they don’t take the same tests. They are not required to reveal their tests. They are not given school performance scores every year. There is no comparison whatsoever.”
Wise said the requirement for only the students at voucher schools using vouchers to take the same tests as the public school students is not enough.
“Given that we are going to have to continue to accept the concept of vouchers, at least have voucher schools — and all schools in the state — be held to the same standards,” Wise said. “It’s only fair to the parents.”
Gaines told School Board members the privatization of education was the baby of former Gov. Bobby Jindal, adding he anticipated Gov. John Bel Edwards would be more receptive to public schools and their concerns over vouchers.
However, he said it would be political suicide for Edwards to try to dismantle the school choice program.
Miller said there might be some room to create a more even playing field for public schools.
“However, the education committee on the House side is extremely favorable to the Charter Schools business,” Miller said.
School District Executive Director of Finance Felix Boughton asked legislators to consider placing schools who take voucher students under the same grading scale as public schools.
“In other words, we’re a B system,” Boughton said. “I guarantee some of the schools that we lost students to, we are a better system than them gradewise, and parents don’t even know it. If they do that, we’d be competing on an even level for (the students,) and we wouldn’t be losing as many. B is pretty high.”