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Louisiana sets rules for landmark school voucher program


State money will continue to flow to scores of private and religious schools participating in Louisiana's new voucher program even if their students fail basic reading and math tests, according to new guidelines released by the state on Monday.

The voucher program, the most sweeping in the nation, is the linchpin of Louisiana's bold push to reshape public education. The state plans to shift tens of millions of dollars from public schools to pay not only private schools but also private businesses and private tutors to educate children across the state.

Republican Governor Bobby Jindal and other voucher advocates see the plan as a way to spur competition among schools and to expand parental choice. Critics, including teachers' unions, argue that vouchers unfairly divert vital tax dollars from public schools.

The Louisiana vouchers cover the full cost of private school tuition for poor and middle-class children who would otherwise attend a low-performing public school. In pushing the plan, Jindal and State Superintendent of Education John White promised to hold the private schools accountable for student achievement.

White said the accountability system unveiled on Monday would do just that.

"We're going to let parents choose the school that's right for them, and then we will hold those schools very accountable for their outcomes," White said.

Critics complained of gaping loopholes.

"I think it's window dressing," said Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. "It doesn't have any real teeth in it."
  
Under the new rules, schools will not be penalized for poor scores on state standarized tests if they have fewer than 40 voucher students enrolled in the upper elementary or secondary grades. Those schools can continue to receive state funds even if their voucher students fail to demonstrate basic competency in math, reading, science and social studies.

White estimated that 75 percent of the 120 private schools in the voucher program this year will fall into this protected category.

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