Jul 3, 2012 5:56 AM by AP
MONROE, La. (AP) - A north Louisiana newspaper reported Monday that Louisiana's education superintendent proposed to "create a story" about plans to determine how many students could enroll at various private schools under the state's new voucher program, which allows thousands of students in low-performing public schools to get taxpayer-funded tuition for private schools.
The News-Star reported that it obtained an email in which John White made the proposal as he prepared to go before a state legislative committee. Committee members were expected to question him closely on the newspaper's earlier report that a Ruston private school had been approved for 315 voucher students though it did not have the facilities, teachers or technology to handle them.
"I'd like to create a news story about 'the next phase' of determining seats in schools before Murray creates an additional story for us tomorrow," White wrote to Gov. Bobby Jindal's press secretary, Kyle Plotkin and Stafford Palmieri, a Jindal education policy adviser. He was referring to Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, a critic of the voucher program.
"I'd also like to take some air out of the room on the floor tomorrow and to give Steve some cover," he said, referring to Rep. Steve Carter, the House Education Committee chairman and sponsor of this year's voucher legislation.
Also in the email, the paper reported, White discusses how he will create the news story by releasing a communication to schools regarding a timeline for student assignment.
"This will allow us to kill multiple birds with one stone," White writes. "It would allow us to talk through the process with the media, muddying up a narrative they're trying to keep black and white."
In his testimony on May 30, White said the letter to the schools concerning the due diligence process "was planned for some time."
White repeated that in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday. He didn't dispute the language attributed to him in The News-Star (http://tnsne.ws/OdQhkd ) but told the AP the point was to make clear that the department always planned to adjust the numbers based on criteria still being developed. He said those criteria may result in changes in the number of students authorized to attend a given school, adding that there may not be as many applicants as available seats at some schools.
"We always had a plan to make adjustments," White told the AP, later adding: "The story had been written that there was a final number and in that email I'm simply saying it's more complex than that."
The Department of Education released a list May 22 of more than 120 private schools with the OK to receive voucher-funded students in the new program, with each school to be allowed a certain number of students.
One that raised eyebrows was New Living Word School in Ruston, with a current enrollment of about 122 according to state figures. It was approved for 315 voucher students, despite its limited facilities and equipment.
The letter that went to schools upon their approval to participate in the program, and obtained by The News-Star, congratulated them for being a part of the program and gave them instructions for marketing the school and accepting applications. There was no mention of further review or further steps in the application process.
"We should have done a better job communicating that we were going to make adjustments," White said in the AP interview.
The newspaper did not provide the contents of the full email or disclose its source.
Asked for a copy, Plotkin said he would consult with administration counsel to determine whether it can be released. He declined to discuss specific language in the email but echoed White's statements.
"From the very beginning the Department of Education said they would be putting together a plan that would give more choice to families and use taxpayer dollars more effectively," Plotkin told the AP. "What the department announced in late May was part of that process."