Judge halts new voucher, teacher laws

Desegregation order in conflict

A federal judge on Monday ordered a halt to implementation of the state’s new voucher and teacher hiring laws in Tangipahoa Parish, saying those laws conflict with court orders in the parish’s decades-old desegregation case.

One attorney in the case said he will now file similar challenges to state Acts 1 and 2 of the 2012 Regular Session in “two or three” other desegregation cases in which he’s involved, and other parishes may follow suit.

At least 30 school districts across the state remain under federal desegregation orders, including East Feliciana, Pointe Coupee and St. Helena parishes.

U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle, who oversees the Tangipahoa Parish case, ruled Monday that diversion of state Minimum Foundation Program funds from the school district to schools enrolling voucher students prevents the School Board from complying with court orders requiring the district to build new schools, improve existing facilities and maintain magnet programs.

The judge, after a hearing held in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, also found that provisions of Act 1 dealing with the hiring and firing of school system personnel conflict with court-ordered procedures for the recruitment and retention of black teachers and administrators.

Lemelle ordered that both legislative acts be enjoined to the extent they conflict with the federal court’s prior orders, and gave attorneys in the case two days to draft a written order to that effect for him to sign.

The state Department of Education plans to appeal the ruling, Superintendent John White said in an emailed statement following Monday’s hearing.

“We strongly disagree with this ruling. We are optimistic it will be reversed on appeal,” White said.

Attorney Nelson Taylor, who represents the plaintiff class in the Tangipahoa case, said he plans to file similar challenges to the state’s voucher and teacher hiring laws Acts 1 and 2 in desegregation cases in East Feliciana and St. Helena parishes.

Taylor serves as a plaintiffs’ attorney in the East Feliciana case and as an attorney for the School Board in St. Helena. He is also lead attorney for the plaintiffs in Pointe Coupee’s desegregation case but did not say what his plans were with respect to Pointe Coupee.

“Who you really need to watch is the Department of Justice because it’s the plaintiff in many of these cases,” he said, noting that there are “well over 30” desegregation cases under federal court order in Louisiana.

Tangipahoa Parish School Board attorney Bob Hammonds said whether other parishes follow suit may depend on the outcome of a parallel state court case in the 19th Judicial District, where the Louisiana School Boards Association and teachers unions have challenged the constitutionality of Acts 1 and 2.

Many of the school boards with desegregation cases are also plaintiffs in the state court case challenging the constitutionality of the new state voucher and teacher hiring laws, Hammonds noted. A trial in that case is scheduled for Wednesday through Friday.

“If they’re successful in that litigation … it would eliminate the need for those issues to be examined in the desegregation context,” Hammonds said. “On the other hand, if the state court rules in favor of the state, I think other school districts like Tangipahoa would still have an opportunity to review their existing desegregation orders to determine whether the implementation of either Act 1 or 2 would interfere with those court orders.”

The Tangipahoa Parish School Board and Taylor requested the injunctions granted Monday due to conflicts between the state laws and court orders in the federal case.

Fifty Tangipahoa Parish students are participating in the voucher program for the 2012-13 school year, at a cost of $176,377 in state MFP funds and $69,393 in local contribution funds, according to Louisiana Department of Education documents.

The School Board argued that the vouchers’ negative financial impact was “virtually certain to increase in the future” as two of the private schools enrolling voucher students have planned significant expansions.

“Today it’s a trickling stream; tomorrow, a raging torrent,” Taylor said.

Attorneys for the state Department of Education argued there is no evidence of a negative impact on the school district.

“I don’t know, and the state doesn’t know, whether Tangipahoa Parish is in a position to comply with the desegregation order,” attorney Jimmy Faircloth said.

He added, “They can’t even describe the standard or what programs are affected.”

In his emailed statement, White said, “The scholarship program has no effect on the desegregation order. There was no evidence produced at the hearing as to why the scholarship program would impact the order; in fact, there was no evidence presented at the hearing at all.”

White, who did not attend Monday’s hearing, refers to what some call the state’s voucher program as a scholarship program. According to a motion filed Nov. 15 on his behalf, he was scheduled to be out of state Nov. 17-28, both for the Thanksgiving holidays and for department business in Memphis, Tenn., and Washington, D.C.

The state’s attorneys also argued that the Tangipahoa Parish school system received about $2 million more in state MFP funds for 2012-13 than in 2011-12.

Faircloth said he was at a loss to explain how the district could fund programs last year on less money, then say the current funding is insufficient.

White echoed the sentiment in his emailed statement, saying, “The system offered no explanation as to why it can’t meet the financial obligations ordered by the desegregation order.”

However, the School Board’s lawyers explained during the hearing that the additional funds had to be used to offset an increase of more than $2.5 million in state-mandated retirement contributions and health insurance costs.

Judge Lemelle said that, while he had a “philosophical concern” whether the loss of funding for 50 students had a significant impact on the school system, he was “deeply concerned” about the long-range potential for more students to flee the district.

“The irreparable harm to the school system trumps and outweighs any difficulties the state would encounter” as a result of Monday’s ruling, Lemelle said during his reasons for judgment.

Attorneys for the Education Department had argued that a federal court does not have the authority to tell the state how to allocate its funds.

The state’s attorneys further argued that Lemelle should delay ruling until after the conclusion of the state court case.