Legislator testifies vouchers illegal in consolidated trial

Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Susan Williams, from left, Tirany Howard and Nayita Wilson hold a poster in support of the state voucher plan for some public school students Wednesday before the start of a trial in Baton Rouge on the issue.
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Susan Williams, from left, Tirany Howard and Nayita Wilson hold a poster in support of the state voucher plan for some public school students Wednesday before the start of a trial in Baton Rouge on the issue.

A state lawmaker who opposes school vouchers testified Wednesday he believes it is illegal to use the state’s public school financing formula to pay for tuition for some students to attend private and parochial schools.

State Rep. John Bel Edwards was the first witness called at the trial of consolidated lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s statewide voucher program and other recently-passed education reforms.

The suits filed by the state’s two largest teacher unions and dozens of local school boards contend Act 2, the so-called voucher bill, of the 2012 legislative session and Senate Concurrent Resolution 99, the Minimum Foundation Program resolution, also approved during the session, do not pass constitutional muster.

The unions and school boards argue it is illegal to pay for the voucher program, home-schooling, online courses, college tuition and independently run charter schools — that will not be affiliated with local school systems — through the public school funding formula.

Edwards, a lawyer, testified the voucher program serves to “capture” local tax dollars and redirect them to private and parochial schools.

“It captures local funds and diverts them for a purpose for which they were never approved by the taxpayers,” he said.

Edwards, D-Amite, said the MFP is the mechanism for funding public elementary and secondary schools, not private and parochial schools.

“I think it’s unlawful what the MFP resolution (SCR 99) does,” he added.

The suits also claim state lawmakers did not follow the constitutional requirements for filing and passing the educational reforms and their funding.

The MFP resolution was approved June 4, the last day of the session. Most bills require 53 votes, a majority of the 105-member House. House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, said that, as a resolution, it required only a majority of those in the chamber and voting. SCR 99 passed the House 51-49.

Alfred “Butch” Speer, who has been clerk of the state House of Representatives for nearly three decades, testified he had never seen an MFP resolution receive fewer than 53 votes.

The bench trial before state District Judge Tim Kelley will resume Thursday. The judge promised a ruling by week’s end. Since 2008, the MFP has provided more than $3 billion annually to local public school districts across Louisiana, economist Jim Richardson testified.

He said the “Minimum” in Minimum Foundation Program is a “very generic term” and depends largely on the economic health and wealth of the state.

Under Act 2, students who attend public schools rated C, D or F under the state accountability system and who meet income rules can apply for state aid to attend private or parochial schools.

Nearly 5,000 students statewide qualified for vouchers, which provide aid to cover tuition and mandatory fees at private and parochial schools. Those schools collect an average of $5,300 per student from the state.

The new program began with the start of the school year in August. Before the new law, the state offered vouchers only to certain students in New Orleans.

Jindal asked state lawmakers to expand the aid statewide to give families another option out of failing public schools.

Critics, such as the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Louisiana Association of Educators and Louisiana School Boards Association, contend the program is draining vital dollars from traditional public schools, where state spending per student has been frozen for four consecutive years.

The Alliance for School Choice, the Black Alliance for Educational Options and several parents have intervened in the case in support of the defendants.

One of those parents, Valerie Evans, participated in a rally and news conference Wednesday morning outside the 19th Judicial District Courthouse before the trial got under way.

Evans’ 11-year-old son Gabriel is using a state voucher, or scholarship as Jindal’s administration calls it, to attend a Catholic school in New Orleans, where he previously was enrolled at a failing public school.

“This scholarship program represents a crisis solution to a crisis problem,” Evans said. “We have to rescue our children.”

Institute for Justice attorney Bill Maurer, who represents Evans, the Black Alliance for Educational Options and other intervenors in the case, argued outside the courthouse and inside the courtroom that Louisiana’s voucher program is an educational “lifeline” for children trapped in failing schools.

Defendants in the suits are the state, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state Department of Education.

Jimmy Faircloth, who represents the state, argued to Kelley that BESE has “enormous discretion” over the MFP formula. He said the Legislature “cannot tell BESE what to put in that formula.”

Editor’s note: This story was modified on Nov. 29, 2012, to reflect that the Alliance for School Choice and the Black Alliance for Educational Options intervened in the case in support of the defendant, not the plaintiff. The Advocate regrets the error.