State asks 5th Circuit to overturn Tangipahoa voucher ruling

The Louisiana Department of Education filed its appellate brief to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday, arguing for reversal of a lower court ruling that the state’s voucher program conflicts with court orders in Tangipahoa Parish’s decades-old desegregation case.

Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle, of the U.S. District Court in New Orleans, ruled Nov. 26 that the state’s diversion of Minimum Foundation Program funds from the school district to schools enrolling voucher students prevents the Tangipahoa Parish School Board from complying with court orders requiring the district to build new schools, improve existing facilities and maintain magnet programs.

Lemelle also found that the voucher program disrupts the student population projections on which the district’s desegregation plan is based, and issued an injunction halting the program in Tangipahoa Parish.

The Education Department appealed that ruling on the grounds that a federal court cannot interfere with a state’s financial decision-making because of state sovereign immunity granted under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The state also argued that, even if the federal court had authority to intervene, the judge should have refrained from ruling on the case pending the outcome of a broader state court proceeding challenging the constitutionality of the voucher program.

A divided three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit stayed Judge Lemelle’s injunction Jan. 14, finding that the state had a “strong likelihood” of winning its case on appeal.

The panel unanimously agreed that Lemelle should have awaited the conclusion of the state court case before ruling on the Tangipahoa suit, but split 2-1 over whether the state’s sovereign immunity would otherwise prevent the court from issuing an injunction.

The panel noted that its opinion is not binding on the panel of 5th Circuit judges that will ultimately decide the appeal.

The Education Department’s brief repeatedly quotes from the panel’s majority opinion, however, arguing that the evidence the School Board presented to Judge Lemelle in November “was nothing more than a generalized concern that an already cash-strapped school board would find itself with fewer resources. No specifics about the particular decreases and the particular impact was provided.”

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 Education Department documents.

The School Board argued that the negative financial impact was “virtually certain to increase in the future” as private schools expand capacity, but the state contends that is not enough to warrant federal court intervention in state decision-making or a halt to the voucher program.

The School Board’s responding brief is due April 15.