Voucher law questioned in desegregation case

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana's education chief has been summoned to federal court in a case involving the state's new school

voucher law and a 47-year-old desegregation case.

U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle has ordered John White and the state education board to come to federal court in New Orleans next


The Tangipahoa school system argues that the

voucher law, which pays private school tuition for some lower-income


from low-performing schools, diverts state money from the local

school district. And they say that affects the system's ability

to comply with orders in the desegregation case. Those orders

include construction of four elementary schools and the continuation

of magnet school programs.

The new statewide voucher program provides

state-funded private school tuition for students from low- to

moderate-income families

who would otherwise attend a public school graded with a C, D or F

by the state. More than 4,900 students are taking advantage

of it in the current school year.

But some in the education establishment are unhappy because the money going to private schools would ordinarily go to local

public school districts.

In a lawsuit, two teacher unions and dozens

of local school boards argue it's improper to pay for the programs

through the

state's public school funding formula, and they claim lawmakers

didn't follow the process for passing laws. That state court

lawsuit is set to be heard Nov. 28 in Baton Rouge.

The federal desegregation suit in Tangipahoa is one of several dating back to the civil rights era, resulting in continuing

federal court oversight of some local systems.

Tangipahoa officials said in court filings

in September that the voucher program would divert a share of the money

the financially

strapped Tangipahoa system usually gets through the state

distribution formula known as the Minimum Foundation Program. That,

they said, hampers their ability to comply with court orders

regarding student assignments and facilities so the system can

eventually be free of federal oversight.

Lemelle's order calls for state education officials to show why the court should not block further implementation of the part

of the voucher law that affects funding for the Tangipahoa system and "commence full Minimum Foundation Program funding to

the Tangipahoa Parish School Board."

During a hearing on the state funding

formula, Avoyelles Parish District Attorney Charles Riddle said it would

have wide-ranging

implications on the civil rights cases in his home parish and the

parishes of Plaquemines, Lafourche, Richland and Ouachita.

The state Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday morning.