Franklin Parish, school vouchers, taxpayer money, education - KNOE 8 News; KNOE-TV; KNOE.com |

Buyer Beware: Education vouchers see successes; criticism

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WINNSBORO, La. (KNOE 8 News) - There's a battle brewing over your money and your child's education.

The Louisiana scholarship program, also known as school vouchers, allows you to transfer your child out of a failing school, into a better one.

However, during a KNOE Investigation, we found out that not only are some students falling through the cracks, one group fears parents could be getting ripped off.

In Franklin Parish, students at Family Community Christian School in Winnsboro, LA fill the classroom's to capacity. You'd never know looking in that 48 of their pint-sized scholars are enrolled there, because of school vouchers.

"I love it," said Elizabeth Rigdon, the schools Principal. "The kids that we have gotten are wonderful and they're coming in, working hard."

But they're behind from the start. In part, because they're transferring in from schools that cannot make the grade. In order to qualify for the state voucher program, a family must meet certain income criteria and must be attending a school that earns a state letter grade of C or below.

Rigdon admits, even with a highly qualified staff, some of which are national board certified and tout over 30 years of teaching experience, bringing each voucher student up to speed can be a struggle.

"We have an after school program where we can work with them and try to catch them up for those who might not be where we are," Rigdon said.

Vouchers in the Ark-La-Miss

Currently, there are 274 students in the Ark-La-Miss who are using vouchers. They span nine schools in four parishes, including Caldwell, Franklin, Lincoln and Ouachita.

There are 4944 students state-wide taking advantage of the program.

State education leaders like State Superintendent John White believe recent news that fewer schools state-wide are voucher qualifying, is encouraging news for the state of Louisiana education.

"Around three-quarters of the schools around the state making progress," said White. "It's not good news when kids are eligible for the scholarship program."

But still, there are hundreds in Northern Louisiana qualifying for and taking the voucher option.

Superintendent White believes pulling public dollars away from the failing schools and re-directing them into schools accepting voucher students is a better use of tax payer dollars.

"If I'm a taxpayer, why am I paying my taxes to get a 'D' and 'F' return? And I'm saying I potentially want to take those dollars, my dollars and do something else with them, so yes, the dollars do follow the child to that school."

The typical cost to educate one Louisiana student in the public schools is $8500 dollars, compared to the $5300 dollars given to each school for each voucher student under the new plan.

The voucher is free for students who make less than 250 percent of the Federal poverty guideline, which is about $57,000 dollars for a family of four.

White says the vouchers will save Louisiana tax payers about $18 million dollars in it's first year.

Slipping Through The Cracks

One parent in Morehouse Parish has a warning for other parents though.

Jennifer Campbell has an autistic son, who is getting ready to graduate elementary school in Bastrop, LA. She says her family is left with few options for her son because of this new letter grade, ranking system for schools.

"To say that our public schools are failing, without seeing inside those doors, serving on committees, understanding what goes on in the public school system, to me, it's ... this is opening to disaster to be honest with you," said Campbell.

Campbell says voucher schools, which spring from private schools, are under no obligation to certify teachers for special education. She explains that their funding levels aren't anywhere near those of public schools, so the voucher program doesn't work for her.

Her emphasis for parents is that each student and each case needs to be examined on a case-by-case basis to determine whether it's a good fit for them.

Campbell's concern is that private schools also aren't obligated to properly prepare lessons for her son and the teasing in public middle schools could damage her son physically and emotionally.

However, for the most part, White says each school accepting vouchers is under the same regulations and oversight as public schools.

"We've got accountability in our public system and we wanted to match that accountability in our private system," said White. "it's the exact same tests, it's the exact same bar, here's one difference, it's a swifter consequence."

Some argue that the punishment is enough. The only consequence for schools not making the grade?

They're unable to accept anymore voucher students the following year. And in turn, less funding.

It's funding that many believe shouldn't be shoveled at those school in the first place.

That's why a lawsuit is pending against the State of Louisiana by the Louisiana Association of Educators.

Angela Miller says it's not the right path for Louisiana students.

"We are suing on the constitutionality of act 2, we believe that it is against the constitution to take public funds and send those to non-public schools," Miller said.

Under the Microscope

Not all schools appear to be under the same microscope either.

During the KNOE Investigation, the issue of accountability and transparency was evident as we tried to clear up rumors with the quality of education being provided to students at New Living Word School in Lincoln Parish, LA.

LAE representatives have received reports that the school is teaching students primarily from DVD instruction.

Ruston's only voucher accepting school first drew red flags before the program was off the ground, by requesting over 300 voucher students. They were eventually granted 97 by the state.

Many, including the LAE, questioned the intentions of principal Rev. Jerry Baldwin.

Why would a school that's being housed in a church request more students than it physically has classroom space for?

The school is currently receiving over $500,000 dollars in tax payer dollars for it's students.

Yet, when we spent the better part of a week trying to contact Rev. Baldwin, he never returned our calls. When we showed up on campus to speak with Baldwin and get his side of the story, we were escorted off campus and not allowed to meet with him.

Future of Louisiana Education

New Living Word seems to be an exception though. The majority of non-public -- voucher accepting schools -- like Family Community Christian School in Winnsboro, LA, are more than willing to help us understand what the successes and challenges are with the program.

And just like education, the state vouchers seem to be a work in progress that may never be a truly finished product.

"I think education, once you say you're there, you're not," said Elizabeth Rigdon of Family Community Christian School. "You're never there with education, it's a constantly changing, every year, every year."

The lawsuit against the state is set to go to court in Baton Rouge at the end of November.

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