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State Supreme Court: Voucher funding unconstitutional

Last Modified: Tuesday, May 07, 2013 10:13 PM

By Natalie Stewart / American Press

The state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the funding method for the private tuition voucher program pushed through the Legislature last year by Gov. Bobby Jindal is unconstitutional, and the local president of the Calcasieu Federation of Teachers said she is “very satisfied” with the ruling.

Teri Johnson said her reaction to the ruling was “Yay.”

The 6-1 decision upholds a state district court ruling that the state constitution forbids using money designated for public schools in the state’s Minimum Foundation Program to pay for private school tuition.

“That’s why LFT (Louisiana Federation of Teachers) filed the lawsuit in the first place,” Johnson said. “We knew it was unconstitutional to take tax money that was dedicated in our constitution and use it for private parochial schools and home schools.”

Two Southwest Louisiana schools are in the voucher system — St. Theodore’s Holy Family Catholic School in Moss Bluff and Our Lady’s School in Sulphur. Neither school returned calls Tuesday requesting comments about the ruling.

“After reviewing the record, the legislative instruments, and the constitutional provisions at issue, we agree with the district court that once funds are dedicated to the state’s Minimum Foundation Program for public education, the constitution prohibits those funds from being expended on the tuition costs of nonpublic schools and nonpublic entities,” read the majority opinion by Justice John Weimer.

He said the court was not ruling on the effectiveness or value of the voucher program, which makes available state-funded private school tuition to students from low- to moderate-income families who might otherwise be forced to attend a poorly performing public school. The ruling, Weimer said, was strictly limited to constitutional issues.

Jindal said in an emailed statement hours after the Supreme Court made its ruling that the Louisiana Scholarship Program would be funded through the state’s budget.

“This ruling means the Scholarship Program is alive and well. ... Before this reform, 44 percent of our schools were failing, we were spending nearly a billion dollars on failing schools and one-third of students were performing below grade level,” he said, adding that because of the program, “the number of failing schools is decreasing, scores are increasing and more Louisiana families have a choice.”

Jindal went on to say that he is disappointed that the funding was rejected, but the state is committed to “making sure this program continues.”

Roughly 8,000 students across the state have been approved for vouchers in the coming school year.

The high court also ruled that the MFP formula was not legally approved last year — in part because it received only 51 votes in the House when 53 were needed.

The Jindal administration has pushed on with the voucher program despite the earlier court ruling.

The majority included Chief Justice Bernette Johnson and Justices Jeffrey Victory, Jeanette Knoll, Marcus Clark and Jefferson Hughes.

Justice Greg Guidry was the only dissenter.

“The majority overlooks the fact that, once a student leaves a district, the district is no longer entitled to the state’s share of the MFP for that student, and thus the district’s share of the MFP is removed from the MFP allocation to that district,” Guidry wrote.

Johnson said the “next hurdle” for LFT is to get Act 1 of the education reform legislation on the Supreme Court docket. “We are looking forward to that,” she said. “A district judge has already agreed with LFT that Act 1 is also unconstitutional.”

Johnson said Act 1, which includes teacher evaluations, has “about 14 different items rolled up into one with items hidden in there.”

“Our viewpoint was that Gov. Jindal tried to put everything in one ball so that no one would look at any one thing,” she said. “According to our constitution, you should have items similar in nature. Where he crossed the line was on what teachers are required to do, what School Boards are required to do, superintendents and principals. There were too many items in it.”

State Education Superintendent John White was not available for comment.

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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