Filed Under:  Education, Local, News, State

Judge rules school voucher law is not constitutional

3rd December 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Zoe Sullivan
Contributing Writer

The decision will be appealed, no matter which side won. Interviews with parties following the Act II education constitutionality lawsuit affirmed this belief.

State District Judge Tim Kelley was charged with hearing a critical case in Louisiana’s education landscape and in the middle of the afternoon on Friday, November 30, he ruled that the state’s Act II legislation is unconstitutional. Act II contains sweeping education measures, including a statewide voucher program. The legislation provided for tax dollars from the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP), constitutionally designated for public education, to fund the vouchers being offered to low- and moderate-income students attending public schools with a C, D or F rating.

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers joined with the Louisiana School Boards Association from across the state and the Louisiana Association of Educators challenging the constitutionality of the sweeping educational voucher program that passed the legislature earlier this year.

Steve Monaghan, President of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, told The Louisiana Weekly that the legislation: “put the voucher program inside the minimum foundation program, which constitutionally, it says very clearly, is the instrument used to fund public elementary and secondary schools.” Monaghan stressed that while his organization may have opposed the pilot voucher project launched in New Orleans in 2008, which laid the foundation for the state-wide program, there was no litigation to stop it because the New Orleans program did not violate the state constitution.

On the other side of the case, Eric B. Lewis heads up the Louisiana chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), an organization, which, according to its web site, focuses on “promoting high-quality educational options” and protecting and expanding parental choice programs. Lewis told The Louisiana Weekly that BAEO believes that “the money should follow the child.”

Critics of the voucher program maintain that offering parents the “choice” to take their child out of a public school does nothing to address the issues causing those schools to perform poorly. Further, they argue, using tax dollars to pay private school tuition takes away resources from the public education system, lessening the chances that failing schools will improve.

The defendants in the case, the State Department of Education and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Although The Louisiana Weekly asked a few questions of the Department of Education via email about the case and its potential implications for students, the Department responded tersely through its spokesperson, Barry Landry. “The legislature crafted a fully constitutional law that is helping thousands of children. We trust these facts will prevail.”

Approximately 5,000 students received vouchers at the start of this academic year to attend private schools. Roughly 10,000 students applied for the funds over the summer, of whom, about 1,000 were already receiving vouchers within the New Orleans pilot project.

Larry Carter, president of United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO), told The Louisiana Weekly that the Act II legislation was problematic because it was passed in a “rush” but also because it included a range of items in one package. He suggested that legislators had faced a serious challenge because the structure of the bill forced them to vote on it as a whole instead of nixing or approving various aspects. Carter also objected to the hurried time frame offered to consider the legislation and its impact. “Most of the time when we rush, we have unintended consequences, and that impacts students and parents.”

Reuters and others reported on the lack of due diligence done by the State Department of Education on the schools accepted into the voucher program and the lack of standards applied to these applicants. According to the news wire, schools such as The New Living Word in Ruston, which had opened spots for 314 voucher students when the legislation first passed, had no library and used DVDs as classroom teaching. Later in the summer, the Department of Education announced some changes to address such glaring issues.

Monaghan told The Louisiana Weekly that “Louisiana has taken the position that parents know best, and that’s a cool little messaging thing.” But, he went on, “the state of Louisiana should provide parents the information they need to know best” and he argued that schools accepting vouchers should be subject to the same rules as public schools, for example with regard to teacher certification.

This article originally published in the December 3, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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