State’s school voucher funding questioned

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON --State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge,  is one of several legislators and other officials who say the key issue in the voucher debate is how Gov. Bobby Jindal plans to fund the aid. The Louisiana Supreme Court  last week ruled that it is unconstitutional to finance the vouchers with the funding source used for public schools.  State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, speaks on the phone on the House floor Friday at the State Capitol.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON --State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, is one of several legislators and other officials who say the key issue in the voucher debate is how Gov. Bobby Jindal plans to fund the aid. The Louisiana Supreme Court last week ruled that it is unconstitutional to finance the vouchers with the funding source used for public schools. State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, speaks on the phone on the House floor Friday at the State Capitol.

Gov. Bobby Jindal faces budget and political hurdles in his bid to continue funding for vouchers after the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that the current spending method is unconstitutional.

Where the money would come from, how to get it through a suddenly rebellious Legislature and even how much is needed — perhaps $41 million or more — are among the issues looming in the final four weeks of the session.

“I think it becomes a big political and budget issue,” said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit group that lobbies on education, financial and other issues.

Vouchers are state aid for some students who attended public schools rated C, D or F by the state to attend private and parochial schools.

Prodded by Jindal, the Legislature last year expanded what used to be solely a New Orleans program statewide.

The 2012 law said the fund that pays for public schools — it is called the Minimum Foundation Program — would also finance the vouchers.

Teacher unions and others challenged the measure, and the state’s top court ruled 6-1 on Tuesday that it is unconstitutional for the state to use MFP dollars to finance tuition at private and parochial schools.

At the top of Jindal’s to-do list is finding the money to continue the aid.

State Superintendent of Education John White said Thursday the state is spending $24 million in the current school year to underwrite vouchers for nearly 5,000 students.

White also said in March that the state spends an average of $5,100 annually per voucher student compared with about $8,500 per year for public school students.

That means the tab for the 2013-14 school year — nearly 8,000 are signed up for vouchers — could be about $41 million.

In addition, the administration also has to find dollars for another Jindal-backed plan approved last year called course choice, which would allow students to take online and other classes from private groups and colleges.

The court said MFP dollars cannot be used for that effort.

Barry Landry, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said officials do not have an estimate on those costs.

White did not respond to a request to discuss the ruling.

Jindal downplayed any concerns when he spoke to reporters on the day of the ruling.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed they struck down the funding mechanism but that is a pretty simple thing for us to remedy,” he said.

The governor said that before vouchers were expanded statewide, they were financed with a separate item in House Bill 1, which is the main budget bill.

That cost the state about $9 million per year.

Some voucher backers are planning a rally at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the State Capitol.

But some lawmakers said budget problems — the state faces a $1.3 billion shortage to keep spending at current levels — will complicate any new push to approve new voucher spending.

State Rep. Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales, said Ascension Parish voters would generally favor spending on highways over vouchers, which backers call a way out of troubled public schools.

“We don’t have much money and we have serious infrastructure needs,” said Lambert, former vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Lambert said the fate of vouchers may come down to political strategy.

The House on Friday approved its own version of Jindal’s proposed $24.7 billion operating budget for the financial year that starts July 1 without tackling vouchers.

Lambert said that while he thinks the funding would fail in the House on an up or down vote, if the House-passed budget returns from the Senate with voucher dollars, it could boost chances for final approval.

“You have to vote against the whole bill solely on the voucher vote,” he said. “All or nothing.”

Jindal’s office did not respond to a request to discuss details of any new plans to support vouchers.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, a voucher critic, said unless Jindal “has a pot hidden” with the money, the key issue is where the money would come from to finance the aid.

One theory is that state leaders could simply move dollars that would have been spent on vouchers in the MFP into a separate category for the assistance.

The question then is whether such a move would spark a major budget fight, Erwin said.

“It certainly puts it into a much more political environment than it might have been if it was run straight through the MFP the way it was earlier,” he said.

Still another question is whether the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which sent its $3.5 billion spending request to the Legislature in March, will have to meet again and approve a new proposal.

The one pending in the Legislature now — it is Senate Concurrent Resolution 23 — includes public school dollars for vouchers.

Legislators, who adjourn June 6, also have to be mindful of the calendar.

The court, in a less noticed part of its ruling, said last year’s $3.4 billion public school legislation was passed unconstitutionally.

Judges said the 2012 measure — Senate Concurrent Resolution 99 — failed to gather enough votes for final approval in the House.

The court also ruled that the resolution missed the legislative deadline.