By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

The state school board on Monday backed Gov. Bobby’s Jindal’s push for a statewide voucher program. Pending approval from the legislature, the voucher program will tap the pool of money the state doles out to districts on a per-student basis.

Dubbed the Minimum Foundation Program, that pool was subject to a slew of changes at a specially called Monday meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The statewide expansion of the current voucher program was among the most notable. The program gives out scholarships for low-income students at low-performing public schools to attend the private schools of their choice.

Other changes include funneling extra cash to high-performing schools as an incentive, funding a college scholarship program for students who graduate high school early, and paying colleges, trade certification programs, and online education programs to provide concurrent enrollment opportunities to students.

The changes, particularly the voucher expansion and the college scholarship program, have irked several groups who said that the state money should only fund K-12 public education. Representatives from educators groups, parish school boards, and one state representative addressed the board with their concerns at the public hearing that preceded the vote.

“I believe it’s unconstitutional that you are doing this because the constitution says that the money should fund public schools,” said state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge. “I think it’s a very legal concern.”

Smith and representatives from Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans and the Louisiana Association of Educators said that the board was hasty in voting on such a major decision. They suggested the board postpone the vote until the regular board meeting March 7.

At least two board members appeared responsive to their concerns about timing. Kira Orange Jones, who represents New Orleans, said board members needed time to engage their constituents before voting. Board member Lottie Beebe even asked State Superintendent John White to do “the professional and responsible thing” and recommend that BESE postpone its vote.

White declined.

“I believe the board specifically requested this information at a meeting prior to today,” he said. He then said that he couldn’t make comments on whether or not board members had adequately prepared for their vote on changes to the formula, but that his office has made itself available for board members’ questions and concerns long before the board’s Monday meeting.

White spoke up at several other points during the meeting. He disagreed when Beebe objected to the cash incentives to high performing schools, saying that the money could instead be sent to struggling campuses.

“I would advocate that for people who take on the biggest challenges, responding by rewarding them is just good management,” he said.

Board President Penny Dastugue agreed. She and vice president and vocal reform proponent Chas Roemer expressed positive sentiment for each of the proposed changes, with Roemer arguing against what he called a “20th century idea” of educating children in the one building, traditional setting. Beebe, who was as vocal as Roemer during the meeting, said that while she agreed with some of the changes, she doesn’t agree with the overall message she believes the board is sending.

“I know what this agenda is about…and the formula reads Gov. Jindal and his political aspirations,” she said towards the end of the meeting.

In the end, Beebe and Carolyn Hill voted against the changes. Orange Jones abstained. Seven other board members approved the changes. Walter Lee was absent from the room for the vote.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...