Education

Jun 18, 2012 5:25 PM by AP

Voucher program framework approved by BESE panel

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The state education board agreed Monday to a framework for a new statewide voucher program that will use tax dollars to send children to private schools within months, but without accountability standards still being devised by the Louisiana Department of Education.

The regulations approved by a panel of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education largely track the provisions included in the law pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal and passed by the Legislature earlier this year. They involve registration, student enrollment and school eligibility.

One exception: BESE's regulations will include caps on how much private schools can raise tuition as they take voucher students. It is designed to address concerns that the schools will significantly increase their rates now that the state is paying for students to attend.

Superintendent of Education John White said the accountability criteria for judging participating schools - required by lawmakers - were still being developed and should be completed well before the Aug. 1 deadline. BESE doesn't need to approve the criteria.

"There is still a lot of discussion to be had," White said.

Private and parochial schools are supposed to be matched with students in mid-July, even though it's unclear how much schools will know at that point about the accountability standards they'll be expected to meet.

"We want to make sure there's adequate safeguards in place to protect both the students and the taxpayers," said Chas Roemer, an education board member from Baton Rouge.

Initially, private schools agreed to take up to 5,100 voucher students, though some have withdrawn or downgraded their projections since then. Also, questions have been raised about whether some schools have the capability and facilities to handle the numbers of students they offered to take. A teachers union has filed a lawsuit seeking to scrap the voucher program.

BESE didn't discuss the projections, the facility questions or the lawsuit Monday.

Monday's vote was a committee action that still needs final approval from BESE at its Tuesday meeting. But the full board was on hand for the committee vote, which passed without objection.

Also backed by the BESE panel were a rewriting of the charter school regulations to track changes included in the Jindal revamp of education laws and regulations governing a new process that will allow parents of children in failing schools to petition for the school to be taken over by the state, through the Recovery School District.

In the voucher program, taxpayer-funded seats at private and parochial schools are available to students from low- to moderate-income families and attend public schools rated with a C, D or F under the state's accountability program. Priority is given to students in D and F schools.

Parents also can apply for students who will be entering kindergarten in the fall if they meet the income requirements, which limit the program to families with an income of up to 250 percent of the poverty level under federal guidelines. For a family of four, that would be about $57,625 per year.

Under BESE's expected regulations, tuition and fee growth for voucher students at participating schools will be capped at 5 percent a year, if the private school charges at or above two-thirds of the per-student cost paid to public schools in the district.

Schools can have higher tuition and fee rate increases if they are below that two-thirds benchmark. They can't charge voucher students more than per-student cost paid to public schools in the district, which averages $8,500 with local and state funding included, under the policy approved Monday.

Under the charter school changes, the nontraditional public schools won't be required to have certified teachers. They also can't have admissions requirements, except for a handful of existing academic magnet schools in New Orleans that will be grandfathered in, under the revamped law.

Under the school takeover provisions, a public school that has received a letter grade of D or F for three years in a row from the state's grading program could be taken away from the local school district if parents or guardians representing a majority of students at the school sign a petition requesting a school takeover. BESE would have to agree to give the school to the Recovery School District, which could run the school directly or turn it into a charter school.

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