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Top District Opts Out of New Louisiana Choice Program

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Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's new, much-touted school choice program has suffered an early setback as one of the state's highest-achieving school districts has said, no thanks.

The Zachary Community School District, a 5,300-student system outside of Baton Rouge, has reversed an earlier decision and chosen not to accept students from academically struggling public schools, citing concerns about absorbing new financial costs and overburdening its teachers and schools.

The superintendent of the district, Warren Drake, told me in an interview today that his worries about the financial burdens of the program have largely been mollified, following a discussion he had with Louisiana State Superintendent of Education John White. But Drake added that he and other district leaders had heard enough objections about putting new burdens on teachers, lack of space in the schools, and other challenges to decide not to take part in the program—at least not next year.

"There are a lot of unknowns," Drake said. "We're crowded, and the teachers have a lot responsibilities on them right now."

Zachary school board members had initially decided last month to accept 30 students from the low-performing schools through the choice program, which was signed into law by Jindal, a Republican, on April 18. But soon after that, board members became concerned that the law's funding mechanism would not be sufficient to cover the costs of absorbing new students.

Those concerns drew an immediate answer from White, the state schools chief, who today issued a press release offering a point-by-point explanation of the funding system. He said that students who transfer from academically low-performing systems will bring their full share of state funding with them—equaling a total of about $8,500—not just a portion of it, $4,000, as Zachary district officials seemed to believe, the superintendent said. The funding provided with be the total amount of local and state funding associated with each child, White explained, and districts accepting children don't lose anything.

"Our state's top-performing school district did a courageous thing by agreeing to accept students who right now do not have the quality choices Zachary community members enjoy," White wrote. "The board's reversal of that decision...was based on false information."

Louisiana's choice program creates a new, statewide private school voucher program with relatively loose income-eligibility requirements and room for potentially strong growth over time. But another part of the program—the one debated in the Zachary district—allows students who are in C, D, or F-ranked schools to apply to attend A or B schools. When there are more applicants than slots at A and B schools, admission is determined by lottery.

Drake noted that the Zachary school district accepted about 300 new students in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and that service did not fall off. Initially, district officials wanted to take part in the new choice program, reasoning that "we had to help, even in a small way," Drake said.

But in the weeks that followed, resistance to the program emerged from the community, he said. Residents have supported the school district through relatively high taxes, the superintedent said. Some had feared that service would slip and classroom crowding would increase with the addition of new students next year, and possibly for years after that, if more students came on board. Drake noted that district officials are also worried about overburdening teachers who will be absorbing major policy changes, including the adoption of Common Core academic standards and a new teacher-evaluation system, in the time ahead. He left open the possibility the district could join the choice program in the future.

"We will continue to explore ways to help students in academically unacceptable schools where possible," he said in a statement, "but at this time [we] are responding to requests from the community not to participate in this program."

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