Lawyers defending Louisiana’s vouchers will appeal their case to the state Supreme Court after a district judge ruled the program unconstitutional because of how the state funds it.
“The clear intent of the [state] constitution is that we fund children and not bricks,” Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said in public comments after the event. Teachers unions suing to stop the program prefer “that all students fail together than parents take the money that is supposed to go to public education and try to get their kids educated,” he charged.
District Judge Tim Kelley ruled it unconstitutional for state or local education taxes to go to private schools. The program amounts to 0.11 percent of the state's annual $8 billion K-12 spending.
Kids’ Futures Uncertain
Kelley’s ruling leaves the education of 5,000 voucher students uncertain. John Lacey is a single father of two voucher students, aged 7 and 9. He thinks it’s unjust for the court to take his kids from schools where they thrive and put them back in public schools that failed them.
“As a taxpayer, I should have the right to put my child in a non-failing school,” he said. “You’re going to tell me I have to leave my child in a failing school system? That’s ridiculous.”
Lacey’s children fell behind academically when they attended public schools, he said, but teachers refused to give them individual attention. He sought a school that matched his family values and offered smaller classrooms, but couldn’t afford to pay the tuition on his own.
“I’m not going to send my child to school knowing you’re not going to teach him what he needs to learn,” he said emphatically. Lacey said he will keep his children in their choice school until the Supreme Court decides the case.
Approximately 380,000 students became eligible for the program when it passed in spring 2012. It gave vouchers averaging $5,300 to students slated to attend public schools the state rated C, D, or F. Louisiana has one of the worst public school systems in the nation, as measured by high school dropout rates and basic math and reading test scores. In fall 2012, five times as many students applied to the program as state officials expected, and twice as many applied as were accepted for the program’s first year.
"Louisiana’s teachers union would rather focus on [the funding mechanism] than focus on the hundreds of schools in the state that are failing," said Institute for Justice attorney Arif Panju, who is assisting the case’s defense. "They view it as a threat that parents will see better options for their children through this school choice program."
Bipartisan Support for Program
In a speech accepting a school choice award for Louisiana from the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, Jindal emphasized the bipartisan support for school vouchers in general and Louisiana’s program in particular. Half of Louisiana’s House Democrats and a quarter of its Senate Democrats supported Jindal’s education reform laws, which included the vouchers.
“This was a bipartisan effort that led to parents picking their children’s schools this year,” Jindal said. The program has a 95 percent parent satisfaction rate and saves taxpayers an average of $3,000 per student “while providing a better education,” Jindal said. “To me, this is a win-win-win.”
A March 2012 poll showed 60 percent of Louisiana voters favored a statewide voucher system, while 30 percent opposed it.
Emphasis on Legalism
Kelley judged the case largely on legal questions rather than testimony about how the program affects families, Panju said.
“How sad that bureaucratic funding formulas and public employee unions take precedence over parents wanting to give their children the best education possible,” said Robert Enlow, president of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.
Kelley had earlier refused to grant a preliminary injunction to stop the voucher program as the lawsuit moved forward.
"We view this as strong grounds for appeal because the state of Louisiana has a host of educational options for parents that aren't their city or parish public school," Panjou said.
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