Vouchers ruled unconstitutional

Published 7:36 pm Saturday, December 1, 2012

State District Judge Tim Kelley ruled Friday that the expanded voucher program outlined in Act 2 of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s educational reform package put into effect this school year is unconstitutional.

The judge of 19th District Court in Baton Rouge stated that it diverts public money to send some public school students to private and parochial schools. Kelley said that both Act 2 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 99 unlawfully divert tax dollars for nonpublic educational purposes.

Nearly 5,000 students state wide qualified for the voucher, or scholarship program, where they could attend private or public schools if they met income eligibility requirements and lived in a school district with a grade of C, D, or F.

St. Tammany Parish School Board President Stephen J. “Jack” Loup III was present in the courtroom and said the mood was mixed, especially when the first two rulings were read.

The first contention, that combining all the items into one act creating Act 1 was deemed acceptable by the court, as was the 51-29 vote of the MFP resolution. This was two of the four points of the suit.

However, it was deemed unconstitutional to use public taxpayer funds to pay for vouchers for non-public schools and that by using these funds, Kelley decided it was diverting public funds from public education, two big wins for the plaintiffs, according to Loup.

The results of the decisions are not clear, however. “It is too early to tell when the ruling will take affect,” said Loup. “If the administration continues voucher funding, it could be in violation of the ruling. Voucher funding could end this semester or this school year; however, by next semester, it should be in violation of the ruling because public funds would still be in use. It’s just a question mark. The BESE board and Department of Education will decide the next move.”

Two of the main issues was the MFP. According to a press release from the Louisiana Association of Educators Communications Specialist Ashley Davis, Louisiana Department of Education Deputy Superintendent of Finance Beth Scioneaux offered additional clarification Thursday on the MFP formula. She said that there was no language in the funding formula that covered school accountability measures for non-public schools and that in her 19 years of working for the LDOE, she never knew a time that the MFP paid money to non-public schools.

Louisiana Association of Educators Attorney Brian Blackwell said it on Thursday that it was this, combined with Wednesday evening’s testimony, that led to the plaintiffs’ decision to end their portion of witness questioning.

In a release on the LAE Website, Blackwell was cited as stating, “We received such striking admissions from Scioneaux on Thursday and Dr. Jim Richardson on Wednesday that we decided that we didn’t need the additional witnesses we planned to call.”

He said that Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) President Penny Dastugue took the stand and admitted, unequivocally, that the terms public and non-public—in reference to schools—were mutually exclusive, according to Davis’ release.

The National School Boards Association also supported the lawsuit and said on their Website, “The law allows students to attend any private or parochial school that is approved by the Louisiana Department of Education, and many of these teach specific and in some cases extremist religious philosophies. Further, the program does little to hold these schools accountable for student learning or financial management of taxpayer funds—for instance, schools that accept less than 40 students with vouchers are not subject to rigorous accountability requirements for student achievement.

NSBA President C. Ed Massey brought a letter of support from NSBA to Baton Rouge at the start of the trial on Wednesday, according to the group’s Website.

“It is clear this law was not created with the best interest of all children in mind; instead it promotes a narrow political agenda and will harm community public schools that serve the best interest of all children,” Massey said. “It also deprives the public schools of valuable resources that are necessary to carry out the mandate to provide a free and appropriate public education.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal released a statement regarding the educational reforms passed which began with a story about a high school valedictorian from New Orleans in 2003 who could not pass the Graduate Exit Exam and scored an 11 on the ACT, putting her in the bottom one percent of all test takers.

“We have come a long way since 2003 and Louisiana has implemented some of the most transformative education laws in the country. Many of the reforms started in New Orleans and the results are incredible… In 2008, we started a scholarship program in New Orleans to give parents with kids trapped in failing schools a choice. This program has given parents more choice, saved taxpayer dollars, and improved test scores,” stated Jindal.

“This year, with bipartisan support, we expanded the scholarship program across the state, increased access to educational enhancements like virtual schools, advancement placement courses, and dual enrollment, and empowered parents with a trigger to effect change in their school more quickly by converting it to a charter school or replacing the management.

“Roughly 5,000 students are now in the scholarship program and more than 10,000 students applied. That shows a true hunger for more choice in our state. After another year of reform, 36 percent of schools are now failing, compared to 44 percent last year. There are still too many failing schools, but the results show that reform is paying off,” said Jindal.

In fact, the reforms were only enacted in the past legislative session this summer and would not have had a chance to make any differences in schools’ performance scores. �