Inside Report for Dec. 21, 2012

Two judges, in separate court systems but in the same week, found reason to halt Louisiana’s voucher program, otherwise known as the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program.

While the rulings met with the same applause from school boards and teachers unions and the same condemnation from educational choice groups and the state Department of Education, the two decisions have considerably different implications.

U.S. District Court Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle ruled on Nov. 26 that the voucher program interferes with the Tangipahoa Parish school system’s ability to comply with its court-ordered desegregation plan and issued an injunction against the program’s operation in the parish.

Four days later in state court, 19th Judicial District Court Judge Tim Kelley found that the program unconstitutionally diverts state public education funds to private schools and other course providers.

The Education Department is poised to file an appeal in the state case that would suspend the effects of Kelley’s ruling pending a final outcome at the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The right to such a suspension is granted by state law and would allow the state to continue to fund the voucher program through the Minimum Foundation Program, which provides money to local school systems based primarily on student enrollment, until the Supreme Court makes a final decision, said Bob Hammonds, attorney for the Louisiana School Boards Association.

In Tangipahoa Parish’s federal desegregation case, there is no similar right to a suspension. However, the state may request a stay of the injunction, pending a final ruling on appeal. Lemelle denied a stay at the district court level, but on appeal, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted the education department’s request.

Had the appellate court not granted the stay, the state would have been in the precarious position of being able to fund the voucher program everywhere in the state except within the borders of Tangipahoa Parish.

The two cases also differ in what the judges have prohibited.

In the state case, it was the voucher program’s reliance on MFP funds, which are constitutionally dedicated to the support of “education in all public elementary and secondary schools,” that Kelley found in violation of the law.

In the federal case, Lemelle issued an injunction against not just the program’s use of MFP funds, but the state’s provision of vouchers in the parish by any means.

If both rulings are upheld, the state theoretically could find another source of funding for the voucher program on a statewide level, but no vouchers whatsoever would be permitted in Tangipahoa Parish.

This is because Lemelle found that the program not only diverts needed funding from the parish school system, but also disrupts the student population projections on which the district’s desegregation plan is based. Finding another source of funding would not provide a solution.

Long term, the issue is far from settled.

Even if the state wins the battle at the Supreme Court, the war may continue as one federal desegregation ruling leads to the quest for another.

More than 30 parishes could become the next battlegrounds in that fight.

And Tangipahoa Parish plaintiffs’ attorney Nelson Taylor, who also serves as counsel in St. Helena and Pointe Coupee’s desegregation cases, already has begun rattling his saber.

Heidi Kinchen covers education for The Advocate’s Florida Parishes bureau. She can be reached at hkinchen@theadvocate.com.