Our Views: A dedication, not free money

Many, although not all, advocates of school choice — using public money to pay for private school tuitions — are from the politically conservative side of the spectrum.

And many, although not all, of those on the conservative side of the spectrum favor literal readings of the U.S. Constitution on some of the most-heated public issues.

Apparently, the Louisiana Constitution is not afforded the same level of respect.

We’ve seen much dissing of the 19th Judicial District court ruling, both in state and in national “choice” circles.

In all that overheated rhetoric about the children “losing” in that court fight, it’s often been neglected that the Louisiana Constitution specifically dedicates the money in question to “public schools and public systems.”

Where is the devotion to literal readings of that constitutional provision? Or for that matter to the local taxpayers who contribute, through taxes dedicated to public schools, into the Minimum Foundation Program formula.

We have seen a great deal of comment from backers of vouchers that the court’s ruling stands in the way of education and prevents parents from doing what is best for their children. For that matter, teacher union leaders made much of the ruling, but they also are guilty of ignoring the legal issues raised by the wording of the state constitution.

It is, the rhetoric aside, the legal questions that must be decided in court, and upon which the justices should focus once the case, as expected, goes to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The court decision is about means — the legality of the program’s source of funding — and not ends, whether vouchers are good for education.

The governor’s rhetoric has done much to confuse the national commentators, including those who should know better.

At the respected Fordham Institute, for example, choice advocate Adam Emerson decried the MFP ruling. For the state, he asked, “what is the difference between privately operated charter schools and private schools accepting voucher-bearing students if each are held to account to parents and taxpayers?”

The “held to account” part deserves larger investigation: To accept vouchers, private and parochial schools have accepted state testing, a requirement they opposed in early battles over vouchers.

And Emerson has a good point about public charter schools. Many “privately operated” charters do in fact operate on a day-to-day basis like private schools, although their legal status is that of a public school, and they are subject to many laws that private schools are not.

But Emerson also missed the point about means, not ends.

Emerson praised Jindal because he “sought more than just budgetary leftovers and worked to fund the voucher program from the same pot of money that bankrolls nearly all public education in Louisiana.”

We believe this sort of commentary ignores the real meat of the district court ruling, which is the explicit language of the Louisiana Constitution on funding. The MFP is dedicated, and the local tax dollars that also flow into the formula are dedicated by the voters in local school districts.

Jindal did not raid the MFP for his earlier, smaller-scale voucher program in New Orleans. He chose to do so this year because the MFP money was easier to get through the Legislature than an appropriation unburdened by the constitutional limitation on MFP.

That’s not just another pot of money. And the constitutional issues raised deserve more than dismissal, particularly from quarters where respect for strict construction generally rules.