State: Voucher program halt would uproot students

Fifty voucher students may be required to change schools before the end of the semester if a federal judge’s order halting implementation of the voucher program in Tangipahoa Parish is not put on hold pending an appeal, state Superintendent of Education John White said.

White’s attorneys filed a motion Wednesday in the parish’s federal desegregation case requesting a stay until Dec. 15 of U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle’s order, pending the Education Department’s appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Lemelle found after a hearing Monday that the state voucher or scholarship program, course provider laws and new school personnel regulations conflict with standing orders in the parish’s 47-year-old desegregation lawsuit, and issued an injunction against those provisions.

Education Department attorneys now say if that ruling is not stayed, “These children (who) have been attending various schools under the scholarship program in Act 2 ... may be required to relocate only weeks before the end of the semester.”

The superintendent of the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge schools, which oversees the four Tangipahoa Parish Catholic schools enrolling voucher students, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

School Board attorneys dispute the contention that students would be ousted before semester’s end.

“The order is prospective and only applies to payments going forward,” School Board lead attorney Charles Patin said Thursday. “The injunction can’t take money away that’s already been spent.”

The state’s next monthly payment to the schools is scheduled for Dec. 17, according to White’s motion.

The last day of the fall semester for St. Joseph School in Ponchatoula and Holy Ghost in Hammond is Dec. 20. Mater Dolorosa in Independence and St. Thomas Aquinas in Hammond will dismiss students after a half day Dec. 21.

White’s argument assumes either that the schools will not allow the students to remain enrolled the few days between the payment-due date and semester’s end or that the students’ parents will be unable or unwilling to pay the difference, Patin said in a brief opposing White’s motion for a stay.

Patin also suggested in his brief that the Education Department could request permission from the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget to reallocate department funds from a source other than the Minimum Foundation Program to make the payment.

The enjoined voucher laws specifically designate MFP funds as the source from which the state is to make such payments.

The School Board had argued that the diversion of MFP funds, including a local contribution share, from the district to voucher-participant schools prevented the district from financially complying with court orders to build new schools, improve existing facilities and maintain magnet programs in the parish.

The board asked for an injunction specifically as to the local contribution off-set provisions of the program.

However, plaintiffs’ attorney Nelson Taylor argued that the voucher program as a whole should be enjoined because it effectively encourages “white flight” from the parish’s struggling schools.

The court’s order, drafted by Patin and signed by Lemelle on Wednesday, reflects an adoption of Taylor’s arguments and enjoins the entire legislative framework for the voucher program.

If the intent of the judge’s order was to halt the entire operation of the voucher program within the parish, shifting Education Department funds to continue supporting the program may fun afoul of the order, Patin conceded in an interview Thursday.

“In a way, I guess you could argue it wouldn’t technically violate the order,” Patin said. “But it would definitely violate the spirit of the order.”

White’s attorneys said the state has “numerous objections,” which were not specified, to the court’s order as drafted by the School Board.

“The parties disagree about the terms of the order,” and the state will submit its own proposed order based on its understanding of the court’s ruling, Education Department attorneys said.