Nine religious schools that will take in taxpayer-funded voucher students for the upcoming school year will more than double their enrollments with the subsidized students, receiving about $3.6 million in payments from the state.
About 13 percent of the 5,600 students who received placement offers this week for Louisiana's new statewide voucher program would attend those greatly enlarged schools, which are mainly in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, according to data released by the Department of Education.
Included in that list is the New Living Word School, which grabbed early attention with lawmakers because of questions about the Ruston church-affiliated school's capability to handle the students. It offered more spaces for voucher students than anyone else, willing to accept 315 children.
It also received more requests from parents than most schools in the program, said Superintendent of Education John White. More than 400 parents from at least four parishes in north Louisiana applied for the voucher slots at the Ruston school.
However, the New Living Word School was approved for fewer slots than it sought, allowed to take 165 children in kindergarten through sixth grade with vouchers.
The school had 122 students in the past year, largely at-risk children, with limited facilities and equipment and much of its instruction using DVDs.
"We visited with the school. We reviewed the resumes of those teachers that could be hired contingent upon the students being assigned. And we examined the instructional materials," White said.
He said while the larger, 315-student proposal involved educating students in the gym, "The school can handle the number of students that we are providing in its main facility."
In exchange for the large numbers of students, the Ruston school agreed to quarterly academic reviews and site visits and to add facilities by the next school year — a move that seeks to address the criticism and concerns. New Living Word was the only school to face that type of agreement as part of its voucher program participation.
The school's principal and the church pastor, Jerry Baldwin, didn't immediately respond Wednesday to a request to talk about the voucher program.
White announced this week that initial voucher assignments have gone out to 5,600 students, across 119 schools around Louisiana, most heavily in south Louisiana. More student assignments are expected in coming weeks.
The voucher program, pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal as a way to expand educational opportunities, will use tax dollars to send students from low- to moderate-income families to private and parochial schools.
Fifteen schools sought to more than double their enrollments with voucher students, and nine were given the ability to do so with the first round of offers approved by White.
After New Living Word, the next largest on that list to be doubled in size is Our Lady of Grace School, a Catholic school in St. John the Baptist Parish that is slated to take in 138 voucher students. It had 122 students last year, according to enrollment data from the education department.
A tiny school in Baton Rouge, Angles Academy, was approved for 50 voucher students from kindergarten through 10th grade. Last year, it was listed as having 11 children at the school.
White said schools seeking to increase their enrollment by 125 percent or more by adding voucher students received increased scrutiny to determine if they could handle the large boost on their campuses.
Only two schools that sought voucher students were deemed ineligible to accept state-funded students, both in southwest Louisiana, small religious schools that offered to triple their enrollment by taking in voucher students: Eternity Christian Academy near Lake Charles and BeauVer Christian Academy in DeRidder.
White said Eternity Christian received applications from parents and didn't have the space for the students requested. BeauVer, whose sign improperly spelled the word "scholarship" when advertising the voucher program, had financial questions among its issues, according to the superintendent.
"BeauVer's campus was in poor condition based on a site visit and did not have space for the new students that they requested. They had low parent demand and had what we would call financial irresponsibility conditions as well," White said.
The DeRidder school's leadership wouldn't comment Wednesday on White's decision. A message left with Eternity Christian wasn't immediately returned, but the school's voicemail still offered parents information about how to apply for the voucher program.