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Louisiana Businesses Urge Vouchers

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The largest business association in Louisiana is urging the state to consider a system of tuition vouchers for public and private education.

Under the "Right to Learn'' proposal unveiled by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry this month, parents could choose to take their children's share of state education funding and apply it toward the cost of attending any eligible school.

The vouchers would be worth approximately $1,200 for elementary-school students and $1,500 for high-school students, according to Jackie Ducote, the group's executive vice president. She said the association was promoting the plan, which has not yet been introduced in the legislature, because "we've just had a growing level of frustration at our inability to do anything to change the educational system.''

"The bottom line is that our students are at the bottom on almost any measure of educational achievement that anybody has,'' she said.

More than 40 percent of the state's 9th graders drop out before high-school graduation, according to Ms. Ducote, and 51 percent of its college freshmen are in remedial courses.

She predicted that adoption of a voucher system would improve that situation by increasing competition and choice among schools. Some 15 percent of Louisiana schoolchildren already attend nonpublic schools.

Opposition Expected

The association is sponsoring a series of four public hearings across the state next month to discuss its proposal, which was based on research conducted with the help of a grant from the U.S. Education Department.

Ms. Ducote said she expects staunch opposition to the plan from the state's education community.

Virginia L. Budd, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association, last week described the voucher proposal as a "panacea'' that "won't cure the problems we have.''

Moreover, she said, the union has "grave concerns'' about a voucher system that would funnel public funds into private schools, particularly given the state's "horrendous'' fiscal condition.

Louisiana's minimum-foundation program, which finances elementary and secondary schooling, has been cut by nearly $100 million in the past year to reduce the state's mounting budget deficit.

Both the L.A.E. and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers have filed suits in an effort to restore some of those funds to local school districts.

"We feel that this is an extremely bad time to even suggest'' a voucher program, Ms. Budd said. Such a program, she argued, would "drain funds that are already sorely needed for public education to private education.''

"We also feel that there's a question of separation of church and state here,'' she added. "Our basic premise is public schools, public dollars; private schools, private dollars.''

Program's Requirements

Under the business association's plan, public or private "schools of choice'' would become eligible to receive voucher money by agreeing to:

  • Reserve 25 percent of their new admissions each year for minority students, and to admit those students regardless of general admissions requirements.
  • Help low-income families by accepting the vouchers as full payment for up to 20 percent of their students.
  • Release data on how students at each grade level perform on national norm-referenced tests.
  • Meet the same standards that nonpublic schools in Louisiana now must meet to receive state aid, including those relating to high-school graduation requirements.

At present, state-approved nonpublic schools in Louisiana can receive assistance to help cover such expenses as transportation and school lunches.

According to Ms. Ducote, the requirements would apply both to "schools of choice'' created by local public-school systems and to private and religious schools. Parents or others could petition local school boards to create such schools within the public sector, she said.

The business association's research on the legal constraints and financing of voucher plans was supported with a $89,913 grant from the U.S. Education Department.

In March of last year, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett awarded more than $2.5 million in grants under a discretionary-grant competition focused on the themes of choice, content, and character.

The board of directors of the association, which represents some 5,000 companies across the state, has not endorsed the plan's specifics, according to Ms. Ducote.

"It's not a final proposal that we will introduce in the legislature,'' which begins its 1987 session next month, she said. But she added that the organization may develop such legislation at a later date.

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