Judge rules voucher funding is unconstitutional

Advocate staff photo by LIBBY ISENHOWER --  Scott Richard, executive director of Louisiana School Boards Association, center, speaks to media Friday outside the 19th Judicial District Courthouse in Baton Rouge about District Judge Tim Kelley's ruling, finding the state's school voucher program unconstitutional. Richard is accompanied at left by East Baton Rouge Parish School Board Vice-President Tarvald Smith and at right by Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan and Louisiana Association of Educators President Joyce Haynes.
Advocate staff photo by LIBBY ISENHOWER -- Scott Richard, executive director of Louisiana School Boards Association, center, speaks to media Friday outside the 19th Judicial District Courthouse in Baton Rouge about District Judge Tim Kelley's ruling, finding the state's school voucher program unconstitutional. Richard is accompanied at left by East Baton Rouge Parish School Board Vice-President Tarvald Smith and at right by Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan and Louisiana Association of Educators President Joyce Haynes.

Program ruled unconstitutional

A Baton Rouge judge ruled Friday that Louisiana’s expanded voucher program, and another key legislatively approved piece of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plan to overhaul public schools, “unconstitutionally divert” public funds to private and parochial schools.

Attorneys for the state and school-choice advocates pledged a swift appeal of state District Judge Tim Kelley’s ruling and stressed that the judge’s decision will not have an impact this school year on the nearly 5,000 public school students statewide who qualified for vouchers to attend private or parochial schools.

“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,” Jindal said in a news release. “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,” he added. “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.”

Kelley’s ruling came at the end of a three-day trial of consolidated lawsuits, filed by Louisiana’s two largest teacher unions and the state’s school boards association, challenging the legality of Act 2 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 99, both of the 2012 legislative session.

Act 2 is the so-called voucher bill, and SCR 99 is the Minimum Foundation Program resolution. Public school aid in the state goes through the MFP formula. This year, it provides $3.4 billion in basic state aid for school operations and students statewide.

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. The vouchers 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 expanded 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.

Kelley, who issued a 39-page written ruling, said from the bench that Act 2 and SCR 99 unconstitutionally divert to nonpublic entities “MFP funds that are constitutionally mandated to be allocated to public elementary and secondary schools.”

The judge also said in court 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. Local funds refers to tax dollars.

“While the Court does not dispute the serious nature of these proceedings nor the impact and potential effects on Louisiana’s educational systems, vital public dollars raised and allocated for public schools through the MFP cannot be lawfully diverted to nonpublic schools or entities,” Kelley wrote in his ruling.

“This Court does not propose to foreclose the State from establishing educational programs that are funded outside the constitutional limitations of the Minimum Foundation Program,” he added.

The lawsuits by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Louisiana Association of Educators and Louisiana School Boards Association were filed against the state Department of Education and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“We strongly disagree with the ruling,” Education Superintendent John White said in a prepared statement. “We are optimistic this decision will be reversed on appeal.”

BESE President Penny Dastugue said in a news release that “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.”

LFT President Steve Monaghan, in an interview Friday outside the courthouse, stressed that the case involved a constitutional challenge and said, “It isn’t a battle over who loves children the most.”

“We want to do what’s right for our children,” LAE President Joyce Haynes added. “It’s not vouchers that’s going to do it.”

LSBA Executive Director Scott Richard, also outside the courthouse, said Kelley’s decision “was made in the best interest of all students statewide.”

LFT attorney Larry Samuel, also speaking outside the courthouse, said because Kelley declared Act 2 and SCR 99 unconstitutional, any appeal would go directly to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said in a news release that it was “no surprise” that Kelley declared 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 under way at the local level,” she said.

Karen Carter Peterson, who chairs the Louisiana Democratic Party, called for an “immediate halt” to Jindal’s voucher program and a return of all funding and students to local public school districts.

“We urge the Governor not to appeal this decision and to refrain from inflicting further needless harm on the public school system by pursuing this unconstitutional program,” she said in a prepared statement.

The Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Alliance for School Choice and several parents intervened in the case on the side of the state defendants.

Bill Maurer, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents the families using the voucher program, said there are strong grounds for an appeal.

“There are clear precedents that allow this program, and many others like it that already exist, to be funded through this means,” he said outside the courthouse. “Simply put, the trial court’s ruling is inconsistent with Louisiana precedents, with the state’s laws and with its Constitution.”

BAEO President Kenneth Campbell, also outside the courthouse, called Kelley’s ruling a “violation of civil rights” that will “yield damaging effects on the lives of thousands of children.”

“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,” he said. “No one was a winner today.”