Injunctions lifted that prevented Tangipahoa school voucher program

A federal appeals court has vacated a virtually toothless injunction granted by a federal judge in 2012 that blocked Louisiana’s school voucher program in Tangipahoa Parish.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a ruling filed Monday, said the injunction became moot after the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld a state district ruling in 2013 that the state’s previous voucher funding method was unconstitutional.

The Tangipahoa Parish School Board and the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the board’s long-standing desegregation lawsuit filed a motion in September 2012 asking U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle to block the law passed in the 2012 legislative session that expanded the state voucher program.

The law, known as Act 2, allowed dollars from the state’s public school funding formula, the Minimum Foundation Program, to be used to let individual students at failing public schools attend private schools.

Nelson Taylor, the attorney for the desegregation plaintiffs, later asked Lemelle to block another of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s 2012 educational initiatives, known as Act 1, that established new guidelines for teacher effectiveness ratings and tenure.

The plaintiffs and School Board argued the education laws conflicted with the federal desegregation order the parish entered in March 2010.

The two parties argued Act 1’s teacher ratings guidelines would harm the parish’s ability to hire more black teachers and Act 2 would subvert the parish’s attempts to build new facilities as required by the desegregation order.

Lemelle, who oversees Tangipahoa’s desegregation case, granted the injunction of both laws in November 2012.

The state Department of Education appealed Lemelle’s decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which granted a stay on the injunction in December 2012 pending appeal.

On Wednesday, the department issued the following statement in response to the 5th Circuit action:

“The law clearly states Act 1 is to be implemented in compliance with all desegregation orders. This law empowers educators to make decisions not based on politics but based on merit.

“It has already allowed for school boards to honor effective teaching and to make common-sense decisions about those who serve our children in the classroom,” the statement says.

The Louisiana Supreme Court in May 2013 upheld a ruling from 19th Judicial District Judge Timothy Kelley, of Baton Rouge, that the voucher law unconstitutionally sent public money to private schools.

Legislators responded by revamping the voucher program to use general fund monies instead of dollars from the Minimum Foundation Program.

Judge Mike Caldwell, also of the 19th Judicial District, struck down Act 1 in January for a second time, but the Jindal administration has said it will appeal that decision.

The Tangipahoa Parish School Board filed a motion in June to be dismissed from the state’s appeal of Lemelle’s decision, saying the Supreme Court ruling rendered the appeal moot.

A 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel granted the Tangipahoa School Board’s dismissal request in July, leaving only the state and the plaintiffs in the desegregation case as parties in the appeal. But the panel did not address the injunction itself.

A different 5th Circuit panel vacated the injunction Monday.

The panel ruled no evidence was presented to show that implementing Act 1 would violate federal law or the desegregation order. The panel said Lemelle “merely concluded that the teacher discharge provisions might frustrate the consent decree’s stated goal of increasing the number and proportion of black teachers.”

Despite the injunction, board Vice President Brett Duncan said vouchers went practically unimpeded in Tangipahoa Parish because of the stay the 5th Circuit granted about a month after the state’s appeal.

“There was never any sort of interruption to the students attending those private schools,” Duncan said.