Louisiana Judge Declares Voucher Funds Must Go Back To Public Schools

Louisiana public schools; photo by Susan Poag,The Times-Picayune archive

Last spring, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and the state’s Republican legislature thought they had found a way to wrest tax dollars away from the public schools and give them to private, mostly religious ones, instead. The plan to use vouchers to gut public education was pushed to approval over the objections of Democrats and teachers’ unions.

On Friday, state District Judge Tim Kelley of Baton Rouge ruled on a lawsuit filed against the legislation by Louisiana’s two largest teacher unions and the state’s school boards association. He determined that the law, which took effect with the fall semester, is unconstitutional. Louisiana’s constitution clearly states:

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education must “annually develop and adopt a formula which shall be used to determine the cost of a minimum foundation program of education in all public elementary and secondary schools…

This is called the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) formula.

Judge Kelley took exception to Act 2 of Jindal’s law, which allows funds to be taken out of the MFP funds and given to private schools through a voucher system. In his ruling, Kelley stated:

“Vital public dollars raised and allocated for public schools through the MFP cannot be lawfully diverted to nonpublic schools or entities… This Court does not propose to foreclose the State from establishing educational programs that are funded outside the constitutional limitations of the Minimum Foundation Program.”

In other words, the state can fund vouchers, but not by using public school funds mandated by the constitution. In a news release calling the voucher act aggressive and overreaching, U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu agreed:

A strategic use of state-funded vouchers could be appropriate, but this diversion of public education dollars was a step too far and diminishes resources for meaningful reform efforts already under way at the local level.”

The judge didn’t issue an injunction against the law, allowing time for the case to be appealed and work its way through the legal system before its reversal upsets the lives of students. Of course, Governor Jindal vowed an immediate appeal.

The law’s opponents are concerned about the quality of the education students are receiving in the meantime, given the fact that most private schools in Louisiana are Bible-based. For instance, according to Reuters News Service, students sit in cubicles at Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake, moving individually through Christian workbooks. A science text consists of “what God made” on each of the six days of creation. The children aren’t exposed to the theory of evolution because pastor-turned-principal, Marie Carrier, says, “We try to stay away from all those things that might confuse our children.” Even wackier Louisiana teachings, such as the co-existence of humans and dinosaurs, can be found here.

Because Judge Kelley declared the law unconstitutional, any appeal will go directly to the Louisiana Supreme Court. This is hopefully a good thing and may at least bring a speedy final resolution.

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