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Louisiana Rolling out Voucher Program

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Louisiana's new, expansive school-choice program is only about a week old, but state officials are already rolling out guidelines for families seeking to participate, and for private and public schools seeking to take them.

Legislation recently signed by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal provides public funding for students at academically struggling schools to attend private schools, or higher-performing public schools. Families with incomes of up to 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines—roughly $57,000 for a family of four—are eligible.

Predicting the impact of the new law on Louisiana's big network of private schools is no easy thing.

State officials recently staged webinars to explain the details of the program to schools keen on participating. Roughly 290 public and private school representatives took part, explained Rene Greer, a spokeswoman for the state department of education, in an e-mail. She cautioned that the application for the program was just posted this week, so it would be "premature for us to estimate participation levels at this point."

Louisiana currently has about 131,866 students in private schools, according to federal estimates. Many of them attend Catholic schools. By comparison, Alabama, a state with a similar overall population, has just 78,351 private school enrollees. Another such state, Kentucky, has less than half Louisiana's private school population, with 61,384 enrollees.

Some voucher supporters foresee major private school growth emerging from Louisiana's law, sufficient to lure new out-of-state private school providers to the Bayou. Others are more cautious, pointing out that existing privates are wary of taking on new students if it will bring new infrastructure and staffing costs.

Overall, 450,000 children in Louisiana attend public schools that have received C, D, or F grades, one trigger for eligibility, state officials say. In 27 out of the 69 parish or city school districts, at least 50 percent of the schools have received a D or F grade.

Families will be apple to apply for the program starting on May 22, and applications will be due by June 29.

For private and public schools where there are more applicants than seats at a particular grade, state officials say they will rely on lotteries to choose students. Applicants will get the news about whether they've gotten into the schools they wanted at the end of July.

I'll put the question out to supporters of vouchers, and critics, alike: Give me your over-under prediction on the number of students who will take part in Louisiana's choice program the first year. And how about a couple years out—say, in year five?

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