Catholic superintendent is encouraged by progress but holds key concerns
When she attended middle school in Orleans Parish, Storm Rice recalls she had to retake classes because her instructor was not properly certified. That was one of many episodes she experienced in public education that inspired her to seek alternatives for her four-year-old son Stephfon.
Last week, Rice joined with hundreds of other families in the New Orleans parish to apply for a school voucher to cover the cost of a private school for her son. The five-day enrollment for 2011-2012 school year, held at the University of New Orleans, ended on Saturday.
“There are a lot of distractions and disruptions in the public schools,” Rice explained as she was filling out the application. “I feel like we were all set back when we had to retake those classes in middle school, and I wanted a better option for my son. I see the scholarships as a way to give him a better learning environment in the private schools.”
As the Student Scholarships for Education Excellence (SSEE) program enters its fourth year, it will accept sixth grade students for the first time. Initially, vouchers were limited to the kindergarten through third grade, but they have expanded each year to include a higher-grade level.
Currently 1,697 voucher recipients are enrolled in private schools, less than 5 percent of the 40,000 public school students. But supporters now see an opportunity to expand the use of school vouchers throughout the state given the steady rise in demand for scholarships over the past few years. The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), for example, has asked that lawmakers consider the use of school vouchers in Baton Rouge and Shreveport.
Gov. Bobby Jindal has called for a 15 percent increase in spending to help cover tuition for New Orleans students switching from public to private schools. The proposal would boost spending for the program from about $8.7 million to $10 million as part of the budget plan Jindal submitted earlier this month. State lawmakers will consider this request for additional funding of the voucher program in the legislative session that begins in April.
Without the voucher program, private education would not be a serious option for her family, Jessica Richardson, a New Orleans resident, observed.
“We were looking at charter schools, but when we found about the voucher program we saw an opportunity,” she said. “Everyone has been very helpful and kind with the application process. There are a couple private schools near where we live but we really needed the voucher and I’m pleased this opportunity is here for our family.”
Likewise, the scholarship money also makes a critical difference for Tiffany Vigne, who is ambitious to send her daughter to one of the Catholic schools.
“I could not afford to send my daughter to the school of my choice without the voucher,” she said. “I heard a radio ad and decided that I should apply. There are a lot of problems in the public schools. The teachers just didn’t care to teach the kids even if they were willing to learn.”
But Shree Medlock, National Advocacy Director for the BAEO, cautions against the idea that a private school automatically addresses all the challenges of education and encourages parents to remain involved.
“We have kids knocking the ball out of the park in public schools and kids who are failing in private schools,” she said. “So we have to maintain some perspective. We do find that kids are more successful when schools want them, that much is clear. We have seen the lives of students and parents transformed when they find the right school.”
Dr. Carolyn Treaudo, principal of the Conquering World Christian Academy on the West Bank, is pleased to see that religious convictions can find expression within the educational setting.
“We have an opportunity to bring God back into the classroom and to provide spiritual enrichment,” she said. “It’s an opportunity that is not there anymore in the public school system.”
The scholarship program includes Christian and Muslim institutions.
Kathleen Finnerty, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said there is good reason to be encouraged by the early progress of the program. Even so, she warned, the diocese continues to encounter financial and academic challenges.
“We are pleased with the partnership we have with BAEO and I think the program is working so far. But it is costing us. There is a gap between the tuition and the actual cost that ranges anywhere from $2,500 to $3,000, which is made up by the parish community. Also, the new students coming in are typically behind their peers academically. We are making progress, but this remains a challenge.”
691 applications have been filed for the 2011-2012 school year, according to the BAEO.