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Published in Print: May 14, 2003, as Pre-K Vouchers Are A Hit With La. Parents

Pre-K Vouchers Are A Hit With La. Parents

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When Stafford Emery learned his family qualified for a school voucher for prekindergarten he stopped worrying about how he would come up with the $2,000 tuition payment for his son at St. Joseph Catholic School in New Orleans.

Other parents in Louisiana have felt that same sense of relief.

More than 1,000 families in the state are now sending their 4-year-olds to private and parochial schools under a publicly financed voucher program for pre-K pupils that the state legislature enacted two years ago.

"We are very grateful for the voucher," said Mr. Emery, whose son Khedric is now a kindergartner at St. Joseph and no longer receives a voucher. "It's been a very good experience."

More states are taking a closer look at vouchers, following the U.S. Supreme Court decision last spring that upheld the constitutionality of a program in Cleveland that allows the publicly financed tuition aid to be used at religious schools. ("Gov. Owens Pledges to Sign Colorado Voucher Bill," April 9, 2003.)

In Louisiana, meanwhile, the popularity of the existing pre-K program is being touted by some as a reason to expand vouchers to other levels of schooling.

Despite support from Gov. Mike Foster and Roman Catholic school leaders, though, several bills that sought to give vouchers to students from low-income families and attending failing schools—and one that proposed to give a voucher to any student regardless of family income—died in the House education committee in recent weeks.

Even the sponsor of the Republican governor's own voucher proposal withdrew the bill after it became clear it had no chance of passing.

Another bill, which was supported by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, would have offered vouchers to low-income students, while exempting religious schools from having to give those students state accountability exams, as would have been required under the governor's plan. It also failed.

Rep. Carl N. Crane, the Republican who chairs the House education committee, sponsored the governor's legislative proposal. He said that despite the popularity of the pre-K voucher program, Louisiana's election-year politics made it harder to garner support for new vouchers. "All the unions are against it, and they were out in force supporting their candidates who are anti-voucher," he said.

All legislative seats in Louisiana are up for election this year. The governor can't run again because of term limits.

Michael Wang, the governor's education adviser, said Mr. Foster's plan was important because it addressed the demand for school choice and the need to hold students accountable. Under the plan, students from low-performing schools who used state vouchers worth up to $3,000 to attend religious and other private schools would also be required to take state accountability exams. Officials of Catholic schools fought that part of the proposal.

"We would not be supportive of a voucher program that would undermine our accountability program," Mr. Want said.

'Parents Love It'

When the legislature created the Non-Public Early Childhood Development Program in 2001, it earmarked federal welfare money to pay for the initiative.

Under the pre-K voucher program, low-income parents apply to schools they want their children to attend. If there are more applicants than slots, as is often the case, a lottery is held to award vouchers.

Worth about $4,700, the vouchers are usually more than double the cost of tuition at many schools. Parents sign an agreement to direct the amount of the voucher to a specific school, but they don't get a check. Any funds above the cost of tuition go to the school to help pay for implementing the program and to pay for activities and services such as field trips, lunch, and other school events.

Currently, 36 schools take part in the program, which has a budget of $6 million. Most of the schools are in New Orleans and most of them are Catholic.

The schools must comply with specific program requirements. For example, prekindergartners attending school with the vouchers cannot be placed in classes with more than 20 children. In addition, all of the teachers in the participating schools must have state certification, and the schools' classrooms must be open two hours before school begins and two hours after classes end each day.

At St. Joseph, more than 120 parents signed up for the 60 voucher spaces that were available at the school this year. Such demand is pretty typical for the schools in the program.

Scholarship money from outside sources—not the state—helps a few families who want to keep their children enrolled in their schools beyond preschool, though many more families would like to stay if they could afford to.

"Parents love it," said Principal Geralyn Dell. "It's a way for us to look at education in this city and extend a helping hand. The public schools in this city are struggling. We are sought after."

The program has expanded from 500 students in its first year to more than 1,000 now. Mr. Wang said there is interest in continuing the expansion, though there are not specific plans yet to do so.

Nationally, the Louisiana pre-K voucher program appears to be unique.

"It's an anomaly," said Adele Robinson, the director of public policy with the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Most pre-K programs, she said, are state funded and do not include a voucher component.

Looking ahead, Catholic leaders in Louisiana want to help meet what they see as a growing demand for expanding school choice beyond prekindergarten. They have been working closely with Catholic educators in Ohio—where the Cleveland voucher program cleared the Supreme Court hurdle almost a year ago—to draft a plan that will pass constitutional muster in Louisiana.

"The question of school choice is really an issue whose time has come," said the Rev. William Maestri, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. "We have emphasized a partnership here in Louisiana between public and private schools on behalf of the child."

Vol. 22, Issue 36, Pages 17,21

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