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Voucher deal threatens to make Edwards look worse

Perhaps Louisiana Education Superintendent John White has outfoxed Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards in the struggle to keep the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program from attenuation.

When the budget process shook out, the program that provides funding for students that attend or would attend subpar schools to enroll in an eligible private or public school took a funding hit of over 5 percent. This meant that several hundred families already accepted into the program would not receive vouchers, a program first.

But behind the scenes White formulated a deal with providers to take on the wait-listed students. He said, with the blessing of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, that the state could give through the families to schools enrolling these children around $100 guaranteed for each enrollee – more than $5,000 below the typical tuition the schools could charge the program participants – in the hopes that perhaps the Legislature in the spring would create a supplemental appropriation to pay off the balance.

The gambit seems to have been at least a qualified success. The wait list has shrunk by almost half and might disappear entirely by the deadline to enroll. This represents a blow to Edwards, a foe of the program whose special interest backers, comprised of beneficiaries of the government school monopoly, want no competition receiving any public funding even indirectly. By negotiating the cut from last year’s spending levels, Edwards both tried to throw brakes on the program and to create a bargaining chip for tax increases to grow government.

White astutely knew that most providers – around half of these Catholic schools and most of the remainder affiliated with some religion – as part of their mission would be receptive to a charitable response to the situation as long as they did not feel they would be taken advantage of by the state. His token payment plus promise to make a good faith effort to find money next year apparently fit this bill. To cap it off, the move saves the state money as now it does not have to pay any more than this to educate these children who otherwise would have cost the state more than $5,000 each and local governments additionally.

While Edwards might try to sell White’s deal as a win for his budget request – he said that unless a recalcitrant Republican legislative majority raised more taxes, the state should try to bargain for lower reimbursements to families for the schools to get all children spots – it seems more likely it will turn into a bigger defeat than the public relations hit he has already taken. The GOP majority favors school choice including vouchers, so if it has the will it will forward legislation to Edwards in the spring restoring around $2 million to the program to pay back the providers.

That would put Edwards between a rock and a hard place. Veto the bill – which represents about 0.0075 percent of the state’s current budget – and he revives the image of standing athwart the schoolhouse door, denying children, mostly from minority families, educational choice that they want. This cold-hearted position compounds as providers, recognizing his depth of his intransigence, will not agree to anything like this in the future that will result in program shrinkage if Edwards has his way in freezing or reducing its funding. Sign the bill, and he lets down the special interests that support him who see vouchers threatening their own power and privilege.

The issue will play out further in next year’s regular legislative session, but at least for now White’s action and the generosity of the providers make the children served the definitive winners, for which White and the schools involved deserve praise.

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