State funds for school vouchers ruled unconstitutional

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    BATON ROUGE, La. – A state judge ruled Nov. 30 that the Louisiana Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program, more commonly known as the voucher program, that was passed during the 2012 Louisiana legislative session last spring is unconstitutional because the state cannot use funds set aside for public education to pay for children in failing school to attend non-public schools.
    Labeling the ruling as “wrong-headed,” Gov. Bobby Jindal said it is a “travesty for parents across Louisiana who want nothing more than for their children to have an equal opportunity at receiving a great education. That opportunity is a chance that every child deserves, and we will continue the fight to give it to them.
    “The opinion sadly ignores the rights of families who do not have the means necessary to escape failing schools,” Jindal added. This ruling changes nothing for the students currently in the program. All along, we expected this to be decided by the Louisiana Supreme Court.”
Jindal will appeal
    Jindal vowed to appeal the decision that was handed down in a 39-page decision by State District Judge Tim Kelley following a three-day trial. The suit was filed by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana School Boards Association, and 143 local school boards against the state Department of Education and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).
    Currently more than 4,900 Louisiana children attending 117 non-public schools receive state-issued tuition vouchers.
    Since Kelley did not issue an immediate injunction to stop the voucher program, students will be able to continue attending the schools they are attending. The program has been extremely successful in Catholic schools throughout Louisiana, providing a quality education to thousands of students, who would otherwise be attending failing schools.
    The annual education appropriation, which is calculated under a formula known as the Minimum Foundation Program, was intended exclusively for public schools. Diverting these funds to other schools is in violation of the state constitution, Kelley said.
    In its court argument, the state argued that as long as public schools are funded adequately and equitably, a portion of state education funds could be given to non-public schools to provide families with more options for the education of their children.
Judge said no
    But Kelley ruled that Louisiana’s Act 2, the so-called voucher bill, and Senate Concurrent Resolution 99, which were passed last spring, unconstitutionally divert to nonpublic entities “MFP funds that are constitutionally mandated to be allocated to public elementary and secondary schools.”
    Kelley added that the act and concurrent resolution unconstitutionally divert to nonpublic entities “local funds included in the MFP that are constitutionally mandated to be allocated” to public schools.
    Through the MFP formula, this year the state is providing $3.4 billion in basic state aid for school operations and students statewide.
    “We strongly disagree with the ruling,” Education Superintendent John White said. “We are optimistic this decision will be reversed on appeal.”
    Following the decision, a state department of education official, Barry Landry, said state officials have begun looking at the possibility of funding the voucher program from the state’s general fund. Monies from this fund have been used for several years to pay for a much smaller voucher program in New Orleans.
Lancaster: Doors are open
    Upon hearing of Kelly’s decision, Dr. Jan Daniel Lancaster, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said, “Our commitment remains to provide a high quality Catholic education and experience to the students and families in our Catholic schools whether they are currently on a state scholarship or not.
    “Our doors remain open to our scholarship students and we will wait to see what actions need to be taken as a result of this judgment as we move into the future.”
    To be eligible to apply for a state education voucher, students must be enrolled in a persistently low-performing school and their family must meet the financial requirement of an annual income up to 250 percent of the poverty line, or $57,625 for a family of four.
    Danny Loar, executive director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, said current scholarship students would not be affected because “funding has not stopped.”
    As for the next academic year, Loar said “the Jindal administration could put money in the budget to pay  for the program.”
    Laura Deavers can be reached at ldeavers@diobr.org

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