By Will Sentell
Gov. Bobby Jindal's plan to expand state aid for low-income students to attend private and parochial schools is unworkable, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu said Monday.
Landrieu said Jindal's proposal would apply to about 378,000 public school students -- more than half the state's enrollment -- and that private schools could not handle such a massive influx of new pupils.
"There is no room for them," she said. "It is not reform; it is illusionary."
Landrieu, who has complimented the governor's willingness to tackle public school problems, made her comments to the Press Club of Baton Rouge.
Jindal said later in the day that he has no expectation that "hundreds of thousands of students" would pursue the aid but that it is important to give families more school options, especially amid severe public school problems in Louisiana.
The governor wants to let low-income students attending public schools rated "C," "D" or "F" by the state qualify for state aid to attend private or parochial schools.
The money would come from dollars the state would otherwise spend on the students in traditional public schools.
Landrieu calls the aid vouchers.
Jindal labels it a scholarship, and has made expansion a key part of his agenda for the 2012 legislative session, which begins Monday.
He says the change would offer parents and students a way out of failing schools.
But the key problem, Landrieu said, is that the math makes the governor's proposal impractical.
The Democrat said that, even if all the state's private schools freed up 10 percent of their capacity, it would only accommodate about 12,000 new students.
The expanded state aid would also apply to 86 percent of all students attending "C, "D" and "F" schools, Landrieu said.
She said that, while vouchers have a place in any bid to improve public schools, they should not be the centerpiece.
"Let's not pull the rug out from under traditional public education," Landrieu told the group.
In a telephone interview Monday evening, Jindal said Landrieu also mentioned areas of agreement with his office, including more flexibility for school administrators, charter schools as an option, and the need to revamp teacher tenure, which is a form of job protection.
"We certainly appreciate her support for many elements of our reform plan," he said.
Jindal also said that, while Florida has already launched school choice plans, only a small percentage of families use those options.
"But it is important to give students this choice," he said.
Louisiana has long ranked near the bottom nationally in public school student achievement.
Jindal often notes that 44 percent of public schools got a "D" or "F" in the first state rankings of their kind, which were issued last year.
Landrieu rattled off a list of statistics on the problem, including the fact that only 14 percent of white adults in the state have a college diploma and just 7 percent of black adults.
She noted that education levels are directly related to job creation and that 80 percent of future jobs will require some degree of college training.
About 1,800 students get scholarships/vouchers now.
They also take the same standardized tests as public school students.
Landrieu said she favors that policy, not requiring all students in the private or parochial school to do so.
Jindal has proposed major changes in teacher tenure, including tougher rules for new teachers to earn it.
Landrieu said that, while she is not familiar with details of the plan, some changes are needed in the tenure law.