Judge says state's voucher program unconstitutional; ruling will be challenged to higher court

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Gov. Bobby Jindal's voucher program that uses tax dollars to send students to private schools was ruled

unconstitutional Friday by a state judge who said it's improperly funded through the public school financing formula.

Judge Tim Kelley sided with arguments presented by teacher unions and school boards seeking to shut down the voucher program

and other changes that would funnel more money away from traditional public schools.

The governor, who made the voucher program and other educational changes a signature of his early second term, said the state

will appeal the decision.

Kelley said the method the Jindal

administration, state education leaders and lawmakers used to pay for

the voucher program

violates state constitutional provisions governing the annual

education funding formula, called the Minimum Foundation Program

or MFP.

"The MFP was set up for students attending public elementary and secondary schools and was never meant to be diverted to private

educational providers," Kelley wrote in a 39-page ruling.

Kelley, a Republican, didn't rule on whether

it's appropriate to spend state tax dollars on private school tuition,

leaving

open the possibility for lawmakers to pay for the program in a

different way. His decision was narrowly focused on the financing

mechanism chosen by the GOP governor and approved by the state

Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and lawmakers.

Jindal called the judge's ruling "a travesty for parents across Louisiana who want nothing more than for their children to

have an equal opportunity at receiving a great education."

"On behalf of the citizens that cast their votes for reform, the parents who want more choices, and the kids who deserve a

chance, we will appeal today's decision, and I'm confident we will prevail," the governor said in a statement.

Bill Maurer, a lawyer representing two

parents with children in the voucher program and two pro-voucher groups,

said he didn't

expect Kelley's ruling to immediately force voucher students from

their private schools, because Kelley didn't issue an injunction

against the program.

"This ruling changes nothing for the

students currently in the program. All along, we expected this to be

decided by the Louisiana

Supreme Court," Jindal said.

More than 4,900 students are enrolled in 117 private schools with taxpayer dollars, in one of the largest voucher programs

in the nation.

Tirany Howard, who has three children

enrolled in a Baton Rouge private school through the voucher program,

said she was disappointed

by the judge's ruling but was trying to remain hopeful that his

decision will be overturned.

"I really don't want to move them and disrupt them in the middle of the school year. That to me is emotionally traumatizing

for them," Howard said outside the courthouse.

Howard said she couldn't afford to send her children to Hosanna Christian Academy without assistance. Without the state covering

tuition, she said her children would end up in a public school deemed failing by the state.

"I didn't see enough effort for me to say that it was OK for my children to go there," Howard said.

Friday's ruling was the second legal setback this week for the voucher program that Jindal pushed through the Legislature

this year as part of a sweeping education system overhaul.

On Monday, a federal judge halted the

voucher program in one Louisiana parish, saying it conflicts with a

decades-old desegregation

case. That ruling in Tangipahoa Parish could have implications in

other Louisiana public school districts that are under federal

desegregation orders.

Jindal pushed the education changes through

in the early weeks of the spring legislative session during marathon

committee

meetings and floor debates that drew vehement protests from

teacher unions and others in the state's education establishment.

"The political rhetoric of 'pro-reform' vs.

'anti-reform' hopefully is over," said Scott Richard, head of the

Louisiana School

Boards Association. "We're not anti-reform. We just want the

political shell game to stop with public funding for public education."

The education department estimated vouchers will cost about $25 million for the 2012-13 school year, with the taxpayer-financed

tuition available to students from low- to moderate-income families who otherwise would attend public schools graded with

a C, D or F by the state.

Two statewide education unions, dozens of their local affiliates and 43 school boards filed lawsuits that were combined into

one trial, held over three days this week.

Kelley ruled the financing plan unconstitutional in two ways: by sending dollars to private schools and by diverting local

tax dollars away from the public school districts for which they were approved.

The judge also ruled it was unconstitutional

for two other programs pushed by Jindal to be financed through the

public school

funding formula. One program would provide college tuition money

to high school students who graduate early. The other would

allow students to take online and apprenticeship-type courses run

by private companies and others outside of the public school

system.

Both were still in planning stages and hadn't started.

Attorneys defending the programs said BESE

has broad constitutional authority to craft education policy and to

devise spending

plans. Lawyer Jimmy Faircloth said the Louisiana Constitution

doesn't specifically prohibit BESE from funding programs beyond

public schools.

"No one can find anything that prohibits BESE from doing what it's doing in this case," Faircloth said.

If Kelley's decision is upheld, lawmakers

could seek to finance the voucher program with a line-item in the

state's annual

budget — the way a previous, New Orleans-only voucher program had

been funded by the state since 2008 without a court challenge.

Quotes From State Officials

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Comments on Friday's state court ruling that Gov. Bobby Jindal's private school tuition voucher program

was unconstitutionally financed:

"Today's ruling is wrong headed and a

travesty for parents across Louisiana who want nothing more than for

their children

to have an equal opportunity at receiving a great education. That

opportunity is a chance that every child deserves, and we

will continue the fight to give it to them. The opinion sadly

ignores the rights of families who do not have the means necessary

to escape failing schools."

— Gov. Bobby Jindal.

"What was demonstrated in that courtroom was that the constitution does mean something." — Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, one of the unions that filed the lawsuit against the

voucher program.

"It is no surprise that State District Judge

Tim Kelley today ruled the unnecessarily aggressive and overreaching

statewide

voucher program unconstitutional. 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." U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

"We're going to do everything we can to make sure those kids are where their parents want them to be." — Superintendent of Education John White.

"This legal battle attempts to prevent children who have been assigned to persistently failing schools the opportunity for

a better education at the school their parents have determined is in their best interest." — Penny Dastugue, president of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"Judge Tim Kelly's decision to declare Act 2

— Gov. Jindal's voucher plan — an unconstitutional use of Minimum

Foundation

Formula Program dollars is a victory for all those who believe

that public education is an essential pillar of our democracy

and of our prosperity." Karen Carter Peterson, a New Orleans state senator and chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party.