Letters: Accepting state funds illegal
by will sentell
Capitol news bureau
August 03, 2012
“What we are telling them is they should be cautious. If the act is found unconstitutional they would be liable for turning that back to the state.” Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the LAE
Attorneys for a teachers’ union Thursday threatened lawsuits against individual private and parochial schools that accept voucher payments.
Voucher backers denounced the maneuver as a bid to intimidate school officials and disrupt the program.
The letters to schools were sent on behalf of the Louisiana Association of Educators, which has challenged the voucher law in the 19th Judicial District Court. A hearing is set for October after LAE officials lost court bids to delay the program while the lawsuit plays out.
State Superintendent of Education John White announced earlier this week that vouchers have been authorized for about 5,600 students at 119 schools statewide.
But a letter sent to voucher schools by attorneys for the LAE, Blackwell & Associates of Baton Rouge, says that any such transfer of state dollars “would constitute an unconstitutional payment of public funds.
“We hope that you agree with us that proceeding with a program that is blatantly unconstitutional (and) does not benefit students, parents, public schools or non-public schools,” the letter says.
Unless the school agrees not to take the state aid, the letter says, “we will have no alternative other than to institute litigation” against the school, including a request for temporary restraining order to stop the flow of voucher dollars until the lawsuit is resolved.
The letter also asks school officials to provide a faxed response by Friday at 4 p.m.
“We are not telling them not to take students,” said Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the LAE.
“What we are telling them is they should be cautious,” Walker-Jones said. “If the act is found unconstitutional they would be liable for turning that back to the state.”
State and local voucher backers denounced the letters, which they called a crude attempt to scare local school officials into bowing out of the program.
“This is a cheap scare tactic by the teachers’ union,” said Josh LeSage, administrator of Hosanna Christian Academy in Baton Rouge, which has been authorized to accept 299 voucher students, third most in the state.
“It’s a schoolyard bully tactic,” said LeSage, whose school was the site of registration activities by voucher students on Thursday.
Officials of the state Department of Education noted that, on Wednesday, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals denied a petition for an injunction to stop the voucher program.
In a prepared statement, White said the letters represent “scare tactics” by teacher unions trying to have the voucher expansion law tossed out in court. “This is outrageous,” White said.
The issue stems from a state law approved in April that allows students attending C, D and F public schools, and who meet income rules, to qualify for vouchers to offset tuition and mandatory fees at private and parochial schools.
Gov. Bobby Jindal, who pushed the law, says the aid gives students a way out of failing public schools.
The LAE and other education groups contend that the way the measure was passed was unconstitutional.
Brian Blackwell, who signed the letters, said about 95 have been sent to schools so far.
In a telephone interview, he said that since a judge has declined to prevent the state from dispersing voucher dollars the letters are aimed at keeping schools from accepting them.
“The purpose of the letter is to give each of those schools the opportunity to do that on a voluntary basis rather than having to do it on a litigated basis,” Blackwell said.
Danny Loar, executive director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Thursday superintendents of Catholic schools that have agreed to accept voucher students have been told to ignore the LAE’s letter.
“We are not going to pay any attention to this,” Loar said. “They are just trying to intimidate us.”
Asked if Jindal would comment Kyle Plotkin, director of communications, issued a prepared statement from the governor that said teacher union leaders “are stooping to new lows and trying to strong-arm schools to keep our kids from getting a quality education.”
Eric Lewis, head of the Louisiana branch of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and a backer of vouchers, called the letters sophomoric.
Blackwell disputed the criticism.
“I mean the program is unconstitutional,” he added. “The lawyers for the bishops should know that. I know the governor knows that. And you know all we are doing is trying to prevent the spending of public dollars on unconstitutional programs.”