Judge hearing voucher debate

A New Orleans mother of six testified Thursday that, if not for the state’s voucher program, she would not have been financially able to rescue her youngest child from a failing Orleans Parish public school in 2008 and move him to a parochial school.

Valerie Evans, the final witness in the trial, also said she will not be able to afford the $4,300-plus tuition to continue sending her 11-year-old son to Resurrection of Our Lord Catholic School in New Orleans if state District Judge Tim Kelley strikes down the voucher program.

Evans is an intervenor in consolidated lawsuits that Louisiana’s two biggest teacher unions and more than 40 local school boards filed against the state earlier this year challenging the constitutionality of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s statewide voucher program and other recently passed education changes.

Evans, the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Alliance for School Choice intervened on behalf of the state defendants, which include the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state Department of Education.

Kelley said he will hear arguments from attorneys involved in the case Friday morning and may issue a ruling in the afternoon. The judge said he might call for written post-trial briefs, which would delay him from ruling Friday.

The lawsuits by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana School Boards Association attack 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 Louisiana goes through a formula called the Minimum Foundation Program, which this year 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. 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 took effect, the state offered vouchers only to certain students in New Orleans.

BESE President Penny Dastugue testified Thursday she believes vouchers are good for children and do not harm the public education system. BESE supports different “pathways” for students, she said.

“I believe in the power of parent choice,” Dastugue said while being questioned by LSBA attorney Robert Hammonds. “I believe parents make the best decision for their children.”

Dastugue told the state’s attorney, Jimmy Faircloth, that improvements were seen in some public schools one year after the letter grade system was implemented. She said she expects vouchers to have the same impact on failing schools.

“You’re asking the school districts, ‘Go do better,’ ” she said.

Evans said after court that her seventh-grade son, who was a third-grader when he entered the voucher program in New Orleans, is doing “very well.” She said he learned “nothing” as a second-grader at his former public school.

“There were too many fights at the school,” she said. “The teachers spent all day with discipline problems. A child should never be afraid to go to school.”

Beth Scioneaux, deputy education superintendent, testified that the voucher program is a “partnership” between the state and local public school districts. She said the state and local districts share the cost of the scholarship program.

LAE attorney Brian Blackwell took issue with her description of the voucher program as a partnership, saying partnerships are typically “voluntary.”

“It’s a dictate,” he told Scioneaux.

The teacher 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 through the public school funding formula.