Private school aid in spotlight

SCHOOL AID IN COURT  — The U.S. Supreme Court has heard arguments about spending public funds on private education and will eventually be issuing an opinion expected to favor private and church schools.

Louisiana has two private school scholarship programs, one of which was the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court hearing Wednesday. However, the court heard a Montana case where there is a dispute over whether public funds should be used to pay for religious schooling.

The Associated Press said the Supreme Court “seems more favorable to religious-based discrimination claims.” If it rules that way, Louisiana’s programs wouldn’t be in jeopardy. Montana is among 37 states that have provisions in their state constitutions that bar religious schools from receiving state aid. Louisiana has been spending public funds on private school tuition since 2012.

The two programs that were created then are the Louisiana Scholarship Program and the Tuition Donation Rebate. The Advocate reported in 2018 that those two programs paid full or partial tuition for almost 9 percent of the children attending private schools in the state.

The Louisiana Scholarship Program, better known as the school voucher program, is the bigger of the two programs. Some 120 private schools have been participating and some 7,000 students are benefiting. The program is limited to students who are supposed to be coming from lower performing schools, and it is the more controversial of the two.

FOX 8 in New Orleans last May said it had investigated the Louisiana scholarship voucher program for months along with NOLA.com/The Times Picayune, WWNO and in partnership with Reveal - The Center for Investigative Reporting.

The Fox 8 investigative team said, “Children from poor families can jump to a voucher school if they attend a C, D or F public school or if they’re entering kindergarten. Our investigation found many instances of students moving to a school with a lower-performing grade. The grades for scholarship schools are based only on the scholarship student’s scores.”

The investigators said last year only 3 percent of the students entering the scholarship program for the first time were entering from an “F” school. They added that 60 percent entered kindergarten, which means most of them never went to a “D” or “F” rated school.

Nola.com/The Times Picayune interviewed Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and said as a state legislator he raised questions about the voucher program when it was expanded statewide in 2012, and said the Fox 8 investigation points to a need for reforms. Edwards told the newspaper the “hastily conceived” program has funneled children into private schools that have not been properly vetted by the state — a finding revealed by the investigation. Teacher unions in Louisiana have also criticized the program, and Edwards has been one of their major supporters.

Fox 8 said Andre Perry, a Louisiana education activist and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said the Louisiana voucher system wasn’t set up to help students. “The voucher program is helping the schools maintain enrollment they probably would not have without that subsidy,” Perry said.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the Montana program is part of a nationwide, conservative-backed campaign against public schools. “This is a ruse to siphon off money from public education,” he said. Montana created a tax credit program like Louisiana’s, but its supreme court struck it down, saying it violates the state’s constitutional ban. A Montana mother filed suit saying the state court decision amounts to discrimination against her religious freedom, and that is the suit that was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Richard Komer of the Virginiabased Institute for Justice that backs school choice programs said, “These programs are about empowering parents, low-income parents, to make the same educational choices that their well-to-do peers make every day, which is to choose private schools for their kids, if public schools aren’t working for them.”

Former Louisiana state Sen. Ann Duplessis of New Orleans is president of the pro-voucher Louisiana Federation for Children. She, too, defends the program, saying voucher schools are at a disadvantage because public schools base performance on LEAP tests. “In many cases traditional public schools gear their day to helping kids pass the test,” Duplessis said. “The voucher schools have curriculum and their day isn’t filled with — is this going to help them.”

She added, “The families are happy. The families think that it’s benefiting their children. I don’t know how else you can define success.”

The Trump administration is taking steps to give religious organizations easier access to federal programs and it has also joined the Montana case on the parents’ side. The AP said the addition of two Trump-appointed members of the Supreme Court — Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — indicate religious organizations will prevail and Montana will have an uphill fight.

Edwards said during last year’s gubernatorial campaign he would call for an overhaul of the $40-million-ayear voucher program. However, trying to convince a more conservative Legislature to do that is going to be a tough sell.

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