Voucher funding provisions challenged

The state Department of Education’s attempt to avoid a Nov. 26 hearing in federal court ignores a century of U.S. Supreme Court rulings confirming that a federal court can take action to ensure state officials comply with federal law, Tangipahoa Parish School Board attorneys say.

The School Board has asked U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle, who oversees the district’s 47-year-old desegregation case, to halt implementation of the state’s new voucher funding provisions in the parish.

The board says the diversion of state Minimum Foundation Program funds from the school district to voucher programs prevents the district from building new schools, improving existing facilities and maintaining magnet programs as required by court orders in the case.

The voucher program also effectively resegregates some schools by permitting white flight, board attorneys say.

State education officials have countered that, under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a federal court cannot interfere with state decision making, particularly where state funding is involved.

School Board attorneys dispute that contention in a brief filed late Tuesday.

“A century of Supreme Court precedent holds that a federal court, consistent with the Eleventh Amendment, may enjoin state officials to conform their future conduct to the requirements of federal law,” attorneys Bob Hammonds, Charles Patin and Ashley Sandage argue in the brief.

Federal courts may intervene even when doing so has a direct and substantial impact on the state treasury, the School Board attorneys say.

The state’s voucher funding laws deprive the district not only of the state’s portion of MFP funds for those students, but also a local contribution share of MFP funds, the attorneys say.

According to state Education Department documents, the state will pay $245,771 in tuition this year for 50 voucher students living in Tangipahoa Parish to attend private schools in and outside the parish.

Of that amount, the district is assessed 21.75 percent, or $69,393, as its share of the cost to fund those students’ vouchers, the documents show.

The state offsets that local share by deducting it from MFP funding the state sends to the district for its remaining student population, the School Board contends.

Moreover, the negative financial impact is “virtually certain to increase in the future,” the attorneys argue in the brief.

Two of the private schools currently taking in Tangipahoa Parish voucher students are expanding in capacity and may increase tuition at any point, the attorneys say. In addition, colleges, vocational schools, online companies and other course providers will be eligible to receive MFP funds for voucher students beginning in 2013-14.

Tangipahoa Parish currently has 558 students dually enrolled in college courses, 98 students dually enrolled in vocational courses and 1,589 students taking online courses, and those numbers are trending upward, according to the brief.

The funding provisions are clear violations, School Board attorneys say, of the Louisiana Constitution, which states that the MFP funding formula “shall be used to determine the cost of a minimum foundation program of education in all public elementary and secondary schools as well as to equitably allocate the funds to parish and city school systems.”

The voucher system also violates federal desegregation laws by permitting white flight, the attorneys say.

The student population of Independence Elementary School, for example, is 73.7 percent black and 26.3 percent white, according to the brief. However, nine of the 10 voucher students who elected to leave the school this year are white, the attorneys say.

In fact, nearly half — 24 out of 50 — of the parish’s voucher students are white, the attorneys say.

“In effect, the state is funding the re-segregation of the school system by failing to consider the racial impact of such student transfers,” the attorneys argue.

The state’s argument that a federal court is powerless to decide whether the voucher program leads to re-segregation or interferes with the court-ordered student assignment plan is without merit, board attorneys say.