THE STATE OF SCHOOL CHOICE IN LOUISIANA
While an odd-numbered year means a low-key summer and fall across the country, there's no such rest for the weary this year in Louisiana. Elections in both the State House and Senate this November mean that candidates are arleady engaging voters, as they'll do over the next three months.
It's no surprise that education will be a major issue in campaigns across the state, especially in the aftermath of attempted funding cuts to the flagship New Orleans voucher program, which allows students in failing schools to attend higher-achieving private schools. Curiously, though, attempts to shutter the program are at odds with public opinion; not only do New Orleans residents support the program, but people throughout the state overwhelmingly support expanding the program to more cities.
But beginning this year, the New Orleans program won't be the only expanded educational option in Louisiana. We take a look at the current landscape of school choice in the Bayou State:
STUDENT SCHOLARSHIPS FOR EDUCATIONAL EXCELLENCE PROGRAM
The Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program (also called the New Orleans voucher program) provides private school vouchers to assist low-income children in failing schools in the state's largest city. Eligibility for students during the 2010-11 school year was as follows:
- Family income cannot exceed 250 percent of federal poverty guideline ($55,125 for a family of four in 2010)
- Entering grades K-5
- Attended an underperforming public school in previous year or entering kindergarten
- Must reside in Orleans Parish
- One additional grade level of eligibility will be added each year
Since 2008, the program has risen from 640 students to 1,647 last year. Over 2,000 families signed up to participate during the 2011-12 year, and despite criticism from anti-choice opponents, parents are satisfied and the program works.
SCHOOL CHOICE PILOT PROGRAM FOR CERTAIN STUDENTS WITH EXCEPTIONALITIES
Though it was created in 2010, this year will be the first for the School Choice Pilot Program for Certain Students with Exceptionalities (aka the Louisiana special needs program). Unlike the New Orleans voucher program, the special needs program will grant scholarships to children with special needs in the state's six largest parishes, and kids in grades K-8 are eligible.
With even more strict accountability measures than the New Orleans program (and scholarship caps at only 50 percent of the state per-pupil funding), the program stands not only to help the students who participate, but also the nearby public schools.
ROBUST CHARTER SCHOOLS
Louisiana is also home to one of the most robust and expansive system of charter schools in the nation. Last year, the state had 90 charter schools, with over 85 percent of them serving kids in poor, urban areas. And just in the past few weeks, the first online charter school opened in the state, enrolling over 600 students from K-12. For more information, visit the web site of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
With bipartisan support for school choice in the state legislature and a governor who has supported choice programs in the past, there is great potential for school choice to expand in Louisiana in the coming legislative session. With a new crop of lawmakers joining the current group that has fought to expand educational options, the opportunity is there for Louisianans to have access to a wide slate of educational options that will empower parents, give kids hope, and create a brighter educational future for the entire state.