Monday, December 3, 2012

Judge Rules Louisiana School Voucher Program Unconstitutional

Ruling Confirms State's New Voucher Law Violates Louisiana Constitution By Funding
Non-Public Schools With MFP Dollars

19th Judicial District Court Judge Timothy Kelley ruled in favor of public education Friday, when he ruled that it is unconstitutional to fund non-public schools through the state’s school funding formula — the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP). Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE) President Joyce Haynes said Friday’s decision was a significant victory in defending the right of every child in Louisiana to attend a quality public school.

“We need to adequately fund the institutions where the majority of our students learn,” she said. “And a majority of Louisiana’s students learn in public school classrooms.”

The lawsuit, sponsored by the LAE and other public school teacher and education groups, sought judicial declaration that Act 2 and Senate Concurrent Resolution (SCR) 99 of the 2012 Legislative Session were unconstitutional because they directed the use of the state’s public school financing formula to pay for tuition for some students to attend private and parochial schools. The three-day trial consisted of attorneys dissecting the MFP, and comparing the language of ACT 2 and SCR 99 to that of the Louisiana Constitution. The proceedings focused on voucher dollars and the impact diverting them would have on the state’s public education system. Haynes said it’s important for people to know the facts about school vouchers.

“Proponents tout the voucher program as a means of reducing education costs, but they actually increase costs,” she said. “This program would have required Louisiana taxpayers to fund two school systems — one public and one private — draining away precious resources from our public school classrooms. Our students, teachers, and taxpayers deserve better.”

An issue LAE Attorney Brian Blackwell said violated the specific directions of Louisiana voters.

“Voters approved taxing themselves to better the public schools in their home parishes,” he said. “No voter was ever asked to approve public funding of non-public schools.”

Another discussion during the trial focused on the lack of accountability measures imposed on voucher schools accepting public funds.

“Private schools have almost complete autonomy with regard to how they operate: who they teach, what they teach, how they teach, how — if at all — they measure student achievement, how they manage their finances, and what they are required to disclose to parents and the public,” Haynes said. “Louisiana citizens deserve to know how their tax dollars are spent.”

Questions now arise about the future of the voucher program. Haynes said no matter what happens, students who enter Louisiana public schools will have qualified, caring teachers to receive them.

During the 2012 Legislative Session, LAE, LFT, and LSBA, along with a number of legislators, tried to point out the constitutional issues surrounding the use of the MFP as the funding mechanism for the voucher program, but the administration ignored their pleas.

“As an organization, we have indicated that teachers need stronger professional development opportunities, smaller class sizes, and appropriate evaluation and critique,” said LAE Executive Director Dr. Michael Walker-Jones. “Governor Jindal and Superintendent John White continue to ignore the professionals and make decisions without even looking at our perspective. They believe that the only answer is to divert funds away from inadequately-resourced classrooms and use standardized test scores to denigrate our schools and teachers. The biggest issue is their glorification of the phrase “school choice,” which does not accurately describe the voucher program.”

President Haynes pointed out that unlike public schools, private schools can discriminate in admissions on the basis of prior academic achievement, standardized test scores, interviews with applicants and parents, gender, religion, income, special needs, and behavioral history.

“As advocates for public education, it is our job to make sure that our public schools are adequately funded so that the educational experience is optimal for all of Louisiana’s children. This is their constitutional right,” she said.

Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White said the state will appeal the ruling. Haynes said it is her sincerest hope that all parties involved will now turn their attention to improving Louisiana public school classrooms.

“We need to invest in proven school improvement strategies like smaller class sizes, certified teachers, and up-to-date textbooks and technology,” she said. “We owe this to the future of this state.”

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