Bayou Book Learnin'


Public-school choice—the right of parents to send their children to a wide range of public schools—is becoming increasingly popular across the nation. But what about private-school choice, where parents can receive a voucher which can be spent on tuition for private or public schools? Although voucher programs have fallen out of favor in the U.S. Department of Education and among many conservatives, many state organizations are still pursuing them. Pro-choice education advocates see Louisiana as the state most likely to introduce vouchers.

Why Louisiana? The state has a higher percentage of students in private schools than any other state, including Catholic schools, fundamentalist Christian academies, and Lutheran schools. The state's largest business organization, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), has endorsed a voucher plan. Democratic Governor Buddy Roemer, while officially endorsing public-school choice, says that vouchers should be considered as one of many options.

Support for vouchers in the Louisiana legislature has steadily increased. A 1987 amendment that would have allowed vouchers for students in kindergarten failed by three votes. Voucher advocates plan to introduce a bill when the state legislature convenes in April; at press time, the bill did not have a sponsor.

Most important, an increasing number of parents have come to favor vouchers. A December poll by the Baton Rouge State-Times and Morning Advocate showed 49 percent of those surveyed favoring vouchers in Louisiana; 36 percent were opposed. Fifty-four percent of blacks and 61 percent of working women surveyed supported vouchers. Seventy-four percent of those polled said that the quality of education in Louisiana was an "extremely serious" or "serious" problem.

Voucher advocates are hopeful that, given voter concern about Louisiana's public schools, the state legislature will pass a bill that will at least allow low-income parents to spend their tax dollars as they please. Fannie Godwin of the Right to Learn Committee, the Louisiana lobby for voucher advocates, believes the battle for vouchers in that state may be winnable. "We wouldn't be pursuing the bill," she says, "if we didn't have a chance of passing it."

Others are less hopeful. Jackie Ducote of the LABI notes that dozens of school boards and the Louisiana Association of Educators (the state NEA affiliate) have already declared their opposition. "It's going to be a monumental fight," she says, "but most of the fights we have won have been very large fights."