Voucher payments under review

State Superintendent of Education John White said Thursday that officials are trying to decide how to make the school year’s final $6 million payment for vouchers after the state Supreme Court scuttled the way the aid is allocated.

“Those are things we are still working out,” White told the Senate Finance Committee.

The court ruled 6-1 Tuesday that paying for vouchers out of the state’s public school financing program — called the Minimum Foundation Program — is unconstitutional.

Vouchers are state aid that allows some students who formerly attended troubled public schools to attend private and parochial schools at state expense.

Nearly 5,000 students at 118 schools get the aid now, and around 8,000 students are set to do so for the 2013-14 school year.

Leaders of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, one of the plaintiffs, and others have questioned whether the state had made all the payments for the current school year and, if not, whether and how any final payments can be made in light of the court ruling.

White told the panel, which is reviewing spending plans for the upcoming financial year, that the state pays for the vouchers quarterly and that a final $6 million allocation is due this month.

State Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans and a panel member, asked the superintendent if the state plans to pay.

“Absolutely,” White replied. “The law requires that payment to be made.”

Moments later state Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, quizzed White on the same subject.

“It seems like you could not use the MFP to make that payment,” LaFleur said.

The issue carries political and budget ramifications.

Voucher critics contend the court made clear that the MFP cannot finance vouchers.

They also hope to block Gov. Bobby Jindal’s plans to continue the aid by finding other funding sources.

But just where the $6 million would come from is unclear, especially amid tense negotiations in the state House over Jindal’s proposed, $24.7 billion operating budget that is set for debate Friday.

Earlier this week, an attorney for the Louisiana Association of Educators, another plaintiff in the voucher lawsuit, said schools that accepted the voucher money should be forced to return it.

Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan, who attended the committee meeting, said any voucher payments should steer clear of the MFP.

“It shouldn’t be at the expense of public education,” Monaghan said after the meeting.

“That is the bottom line,” he said. “It is a legal mess is what it is.”

White said in opening comments to the committee that, while he knew the issue would arise, attorneys for the state are still reviewing the court’s 62-page voucher opinion.

“I don’t have definitive legal answers,” he said.

That includes whether the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will submit a new MFP request to the Legislature.

The 11-member panel approved a $3.5 billion spending request and sent it to the Legislature earlier this year.

It includes funds for voucher payments, and also a provision that sought to remove that section if the state Supreme Court struck down the funding mechanism, which is what happened.

“We are working with the administration on it,” he said, a reference to any possible BESE meeting.