By Stephanie Simon/Reuters / from Huffinton Post | http://huff.to/QVnFR8
11/30/2012 5:49 pm EST Updated: 11/30/2012 11:06 pm EST :: (Reuters) - A state judge on Friday shot down Louisiana's sweeping school voucher program, ruling that the state could not use funds set aside for public education to pay private-school tuition for thousands of low- and middle-income children.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who had championed the program, called the ruling "wrong-headed" and "a travesty for parents across Louisiana who want nothing more than for their children to have an equal opportunity at receiving a great education."
Jindal, a Republican, vowed to appeal.
While State District Judge Tim Kelley ruled the voucher program unconstitutional, he did not issue an immediate injunction to stop it. The 5,000 students currently receiving vouchers will be able to continue attending their private schools pending an appeal, state officials said.
"We are optimistic this decision will be reversed," said John White, state superintendent of education.
But Kelley's ruling is not the only challenge facing the voucher program.
Earlier this week, a federal judge in New Orleans ruled that the program had the potential to disrupt the region's court-ordered efforts to desegregate public schools. The judge issued a temporary injunction halting the use of vouchers in Tangipahoa Parish over concern that the program was siphoning off state dollars needed to implement the desegregation plan.
While that ruling just applied to the one parish, at least 30 other school districts in Louisiana are under desegregation orders; opponents of the voucher program have said they will bring similar federal court cases in those districts.
They may not need to take such action, however, if Friday's ruling is upheld. Kelley issued his 39-page decision after a brief but emotional trial in a case brought by two teachers unions, dozens of local school boards and the state school board association.
"Today is really significant," said Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. "What the governor was doing was unprecedented and unconstitutional under Louisiana law."
About 5,000 students are currently receiving the vouchers, which cover tuition and fees at scores of private and parochial schools, including some small church-based schools that infuse all their classes with Biblical references and do not teach subjects such as evolution.
Students are eligible if they attend a poorly performing public school and if their families meet income guidelines. Households can qualify with annual income up to 250 percent of the poverty line, or $57,625 for a family of four.
The state had argued that as long as it was funding public schools adequately and equitably, it could give a portion of state education funds to private and parochial schools as well, in the interest of giving families more educational options.
But Judge Kelley ruled that Louisiana's annual education appropriation, calculated under a complex formula known as the Minimum Foundation Program, was intended exclusively for public schools. To divert it, he said, violated the state constitution.
The use of state money to pay for religious education was not at issue in the case; the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that vouchers can be used for religious education so long as the state is not promoting any one faith but letting parents choose where to enroll their children.
Within minutes of the ruling, state education officials were scrambling to come up with a workaround that would let them continue the program with a different funding mechanism, said Barry Landry, a spokesman for the department of education.
One possible solution: The legislature could appropriate money to pay private-school tuition from the state's general fund, rather than digging into the separate pot of money set aside for public education. General fund money has been used for several years without court challenge to pay for a much smaller voucher program in New Orleans.
But finding funds to pay private-school tuition statewide could be tough; the tab is expected to hit about $25 million this year and could rise sharply if, as state officials expect, more private schools open up seats for voucher students and more families apply for the aid. Louisiana has been hit hard by the recession and has made several painful budget cuts in recent years, including sharp cuts to the public hospital system.
Monaghan, the teachers union president, all but dared the governor to seek a general fund appropriation for the voucher program, betting it wouldn't fly in an age of austerity. "The next move is for the governor," he said.
In a statement, Jindal didn't tip his hand about his tactics but did issue a forceful vow to defend his signature program. The opportunity to attend private schools, he said, "is a chance that every child deserves, and we will continue the fight to give it to them." (Reporting by Stephanie Simon; editing by Prudence Crowther)
Louisiana voucher case ruling: reactions of the parties
November 30, 2012 at 5:09 PM, updated November 30, 2012 at 6:15 PM
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal:
"Today's ruling is wrong headed and 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. On behalf of the citizens that cast their votes for reform, the parents who want more choices, and the kids who deserve a chance, we will appeal today's decision, and I'm confident we will prevail. This ruling changes nothing for the students currently in the program. All along, we expected this to be decided by the Louisiana Supreme Court."
Department of Education Superintendent John White:
"We strongly disagree with the ruling. We are optimistic this decision will be reversed on appeal."
Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) President Penny Dastugue:
"This legal battle attempts to prevent children who have been assigned to persistently failing schools the opportunity for a better education at the school their parents have determined is in their best interest. BESE strongly disagrees with today's ruling on funding for the Scholarship Program and will appeal for the sake of the 5,000 students participating in the program."
Black Alliance for Educational Options President Kenneth Campbell:
"Justice and equality has not prevailed in this case. As a result of this decision, hope and opportunity have been taken away from families who are only trying to escape failing schools and gain access to better educational options," said BAEO President, Kenneth Campbell. "We are outraged at the groups who felt it was necessary to go this far to rob our students of high-quality educations. In actuality no one was a winner today."
State Rep. Kevin Pearson, R-Slidell:
"It saddens me to think that the children of Louisiana whose parents chose to remove them from potentially failing schools might now be required to send them back to those institutions. The Constitution of Louisiana is 40 years old, and there are many areas in which former legislators seemed to go overboard in protecting areas of funding without any measure of accountability. I trust Judge Kelly could not get around certain areas of law and rule in favor of the children seeking better educational opportunity, and was forced by legal language to rule in the manner he did.
This decision will certainly be appealed, but there is more than one way to fund these scholarships. This is a brief setback to those hoping to improve from Louisiana's current 48th ranking among the states, yet an encouragement to those who support a status quo. Fortunately, there are many in the Legislature who remain unwilling to accept our current standing and who are determined to make Louisiana a state of opportunity for our children."
Senator Mary Landrieu, D-La.:
"It is no surprise that State District Judge Tim Kelley today ruled the unnecessarily aggressive and overreaching statewide voucher program unconstitutional. A strategic use of state-funded vouchers could be appropriate, but this diversion of public education dollars was a step too far and diminishes resources for meaningful reform efforts already underway at the local level. Judge Kelley was correct in setting appropriate limits."
State Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite:
"None of us are happy with the state of public education. We all need to work together to improve it but we are truly a nation of laws and we never have the option to do that which is constitutional."
Louisiana School Board Association, Louisiana Association of Educators, Louisiana Federation of Teachers:
"On behalf of the Louisiana School Boards Association and 43 public school boards, we certainly respect the decision of the trial court; however, we know that this is only an initial step in a possibly prolonged legal process.
School Boards had no desire to seek a legal remedy to the constitutional problems associated with the recent legislation in Act 2 and SCR 99/MFP, but had no choice due to the fact that these pieces of legislation were not properly vetted in the beginning of the legislative session; and, were unnecessarily fast-tracked for obvious reasons.
LSBA remains committed to ensuring that all school boards perform their statutorily mandated directive to seek all funds available in order to provide quality educational services. We strongly believe that public tax dollars should not be diverted to private entities, especially given the current economic climate -- and, this litigation begs the question as to the effectiveness of state-funding shell game called the MINIMUM Foundation Program.
LSBA along with all school boards and our parent organization, the National School Boards Association, will continue to work to see this important litigation reach final resolution -- for the children we are charged with serving."