Louisiana Plan To Subsidize Pre-K In Religious Schools Draws Fire

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Louisiana is launching what many in the state are calling a private-school- voucher program for poor 4-year-olds in New Orleans, sparking controversy in the Bayou State.

Kirby J. Ducote

In question is $3 million contained—surreptitiously slipped in, some opponents charge—in this year's general budget that low-income families of 4-year-olds can direct to participating private and religious schools to pay for all-day prekindergarten. The state is using federal welfare aid to finance the initiative, which is expected to serve 500 to 600 children.

"It's going to be a voucher program ... to provide parents freedom of choice in how they want their child educated," said Kirby J. Ducote, the executive director of the Louisiana Catholic Conference. "It's something we've been trying to get into place for 34 years."

Mr. Ducote, who lobbied aggressively for the measure, likens it to the high-profile voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee.

One clear difference is that the Louisiana initiative involves early-childhood education. Federal and state child-care subsidies often allow families to place their children in a wide range of settings. State prekindergarten programs also typically involve a host of providers, not just public schools.

Yet some national experts suggest that the Louisiana program appears unusual. "I've never heard of a prekindergarten program carving out money [exclusively] for private schools," said Helen Blank, the director of child care at the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund.

Some opponents of the program are contemplating legal action, though details of how the initiative will be carried out have not been completed.

"This is kind of the mystery program," said Frederick F. Skelton, the president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. He noted that the program was created through a line item in the budget—one sentence about creating a "faith based" initiative, with no enabling legislation.

"We're prepared to pursue it legally, but we don't have anything to go on at this point," Mr. Skelton said.

The New Orleans initiative comes as Louisiana prepares to launch a $15 million program to serve poor 4-year-olds through the state's public schools. That statewide initiative is also being financed with federal Targeted Assistance for Needy Families funds, provided in block grants to states to help them move parents from welfare to work.

Tactics Questioned

When the legislature was considering the preschool program this year, some lawmakers sought to carve out 15 percent of the money for the state's nonpublic schools, but that move was rejected. Instead, several legislators succeeded in amending the general- fund budget late in the process by adding $3 million to create the pre-K program for nonpublic schools.

Critics say it was sneaked in without public debate, and the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has sued the state to demand documents about how the program was developed.

"If it had gone through the normal legislative process, I don't think it ever would have passed," said Joe Cook, the executive director of the Louisiana ACLU. He said ACLU lawyers had not yet decided about further legal action.

In response to the ACLU suit, Gov. Mike Foster, a Republican, released documents last week that included a July 30 draft of the contract the state is putting together with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which will oversee the program. As drafted, families could choose from a list of preschool programs at participating nonpublic schools in New Orleans that have been approved by the state board of education. The state would then pay for services on behalf of the family. The program is expected to provide up to $5,000 annually per child, similar to the statewide initiative.

Michael J. Wang, a policy analyst in the governor's office, said the state had been careful to draft a contract that could withstand constitutional challenges. He said the program seeks to "provide educational opportunities for at-risk [children] who would otherwise not receive any."

While some opponents are upset that the program provides funds for families to choose private schools, the prekindergarten program in Georgia, for example, allows private centers, churches, and religious schools to be providers, said Mark Waits, a spokesman for Georgia's office of school readiness. He noted, though, that religious instruction is prohibited during the portion of the day paid for by the state.

"The trend has been that usually a pre-K initiative that is coming out of the states would provide some mix going to private providers," said Rachel Schumacher, a policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy. However, she did not know of other examples where a state program was so narrowly focused, effectively steering families to a set of nonpublic schools.

Anne Mitchell, the president of Early Childhood Policy Research in Climax, N.Y., also suggested that the Louisiana program may be one-of-a- kind. "That's the only case I know of that's that specific," she said. "I think that's unusual, perhaps unique."

Vol. 20, Issue 43, Page 29

Published in Print: August 8, 2001, as Louisiana Plan To Subsidize Pre-K In Religious Schools Draws Fire
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