Superintendent of Education John White. (Donna Price / American Press)
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 1:43 PM
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 Tuesday.
The Tangipahoa school system argues that the voucher law, which pays private school tuition for some lower-income students 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.