Louisiana Spotlight: State voucher ruling creates uncertainties

Gov. Bobby Jindal somehow was claiming a victory and telling parents not to worry after the Louisiana Supreme Court, in a 6-1 vote, rejected his administration’s legal arguments and declared the financing of his voucher program unconstitutional.

“I would tell those moms that they can breathe a deep sigh of relief,” the governor said.

“Obviously we’re disappointed they struck down the funding mechanism, but that is a pretty simple thing for us to remedy,” Jindal said, suggesting the dollars would easily be plugged into the state’s annual operating budget.

Far from simple. The reality’s quite a bit messier than the spin.

The decisive loss leaves the Jindal administration and Superintendent of Education John White scrambling for dollars to continue the program in a year where lawmakers are less than friendly to administration suggestions.

The ruling leaves parents with children in the program wondering if the kids can stay in their schools next year.

The Supreme Court declared that it was unconstitutional to pay to send children to private schools with taxpayer dollars through the public school funding formula, called the Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP. That decision matched a lower court ruling.

But the high court went even further, ruling that the public school funding formula was never properly passed by lawmakers because of timing issues of when the formula was introduced and heard by the Legislature, and because it didn’t get enough votes.

For the voucher program, that raises an immediate problem. A $6 million payment to private schools is due this month, and it’s unclear how the education department will pay for it.

White told senators this week that he planned to make the payment as scheduled.

“Where is the money coming from?” asked Sen. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, during a Senate Finance Committee hearing.

“I think those are things we’re still working out,” White replied.

Legislative leaders said they haven’t yet received guidance from the Jindal administration about how the governor proposes to pay for this year’s tuition or next year’s, which could be in the $40 million range to cover the 7,800 students slated to receive state-funded private school tuition in the 2013-14 school year.

Also, there’s a separate program in the works to let students take classes outside of the traditional school setting, through online providers and other programs. The MFP can’t pay for those courses.

When pressed for estimates of how much money might be needed for the programs, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education claimed the agency didn’t have any ballpark figures for the cost.

Then how could the Legislature even consider paying for the programs in the budget if lawmakers haven’t been told how much they might need to drum up? The legislative session ends in only a few weeks, on June 6.

Meanwhile, the implications of the second portion of the Supreme Court ruling are significant.

It’s not known yet how many years ago lawmakers followed the timing and vote process outlined in the court ruling as being required for passage of a public school funding formula.

White told senators that lawyers are still combing through the decision to determine the full implications.

“We could go back several years to get back to one that was filed timely,” Murray said.

That would determine how much each school district was supposed to get and could require a substantial reshuffling of dollars to meet the math of an old formula.

Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press. Her email address is mdeslatte@ap.org.