Voucher program grows by 1,800 students this year

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Lawsuits, funding concerns and questions about quality haven't stopped the growth of Gov. Bobby Jindal's

voucher program.

The program added more than 1,800 students this year, according to the first official tally for the current 2013-14 school

year released Monday.

The state Department of Education said 6,751

students are enrolled in 126 private schools across the state with

taxpayer dollars.

Another 24 students have switched to a high-performing public

school through the voucher program, for a total of 6,775 enrollments.

That's a 37 percent increase, up from 4,944 students using vouchers at the same point last year, in the first year of the

statewide program.

"We feel good about the program. We do expect it to continue to increase year after year," said education department spokesman

Barry Landry.

Taxpayer-financed tuition through

Louisiana's voucher program, called the Louisiana Scholarship Program,

is available to students

from low- to moderate-income families who otherwise would attend

public schools graded C, D or F in the state's rating system.

Forty percent of voucher students are in New

Orleans, where vouchers began as a pilot program five years ago and

more than

2,750 students are at private schools with state tax dollars.

Nearly 1,300 voucher students are in East Baton Rouge Parish.

The program is estimated to cost the state $36 million in the current budget year. The price tag is down from initial estimates.

About 8,000 students were approved for state-funded tuition to private schools, but enrollments fell short of that number.

Landry said some students chose to stay in

their public schools after they didn't get into their first or second

choice voucher

schools. Also, he said seven schools weren't allowed to enroll new

students because of poor student performance. Another school

was kicked out of the program.

Vouchers have been the subject of multiple

lawsuits since lawmakers in 2012 backed Jindal's proposal to expand a

New Orleans-based

program to cover the state.

The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled vouchers

were unconstitutionally funded through a formula meant for public

schools, so lawmakers

had to rework the payment for the program.

Another lawsuit still pending in federal court was filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, seeking to bar Louisiana from

awarding future vouchers to students who otherwise would attend public schools under federal desegregation orders — until

getting federal clearance.

Jindal has pushed the voucher program as offering more choices to parents and students trapped in low-performing schools.

Critics have raised concerns about the quality of some of the private schools taking voucher students, and the incomplete

test results that have been released showed mixed results about the performance of students in the program.