Landmark voucher law could be derailed

Special to the Herald-Guide
November 29, 2012 at 11:01 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

By John Maginnis

In what may have been the apex of Gov. Bobby Jindalís power and influence over the Legislature, his team pressed non-stop to push through a far-reaching package of education bills in the first three weeks of this yearís session, which is considered warp speed at the Capitol.

The centerpiece of those laws, establishing a statewide voucher program by which over 5,000 public school students are having their tuition paid to attend private and church schools, faces challenges in state and federal courts. A ruling handed down this week does not bode well for Jindalís new order for education, while it might also change the course of schooling, again, for many of those 5,000 children.

Trial is scheduled to start on Wednesday in state district court in Baton Rouge on a lawsuit brought by two major teacher unions and 43 local school boards, who are challenging the constitutionality of how the vouchers are funded and how the law was passed.

But earlier this week, the voucher law was dealt a heavy blow when a federal judge ruled that it, along with a law revamping teacher tenure, conflicts with his school desegregation order in Tangipahoa Parish. While his ruling only affects one parish, dozens of other school districts under desegregation orders in Louisiana could be their way to federal court soon to raise the same point.

There are multiple issues in both suits, but central to both are the school boardsí claims that the state is illegally diverting local tax dollars, dedicated to public schools, to pay to send students to private schools. The suit in state court claims that practice violates the state constitution. In the Tangipahoa case in federal court, the school board argues that using local funds for vouchers makes it impossible for it to comply with the judgeís order mandating new school construction and magnet school programs.

In both cases, the stateís response is pretty simple: there are no local funds in vouchers.

With over $40 million running through the voucher program, it would seem not hard to sort out where the money comes from. Yet that debate has raged from the time the voucher bill was filed.

The Legislature supports public education through the Minimum Foundation Program, which allocates $3.3 billion in state money to the 69 school districts according to a complex formula, based largely on enrollment and the taxable wealth in each district. So the state portion for each district varies according to how much each parish or municipality is capable of raising for its local share.

The Jindal administration realized from the start that to use local tax dollars to finance vouchers would not only raise a constitutional issue but also create a major political obstacle in the Legislature.

So, as the bill was written, the state deducts from what the MFP pays to local districts an amount nearly equal to the state portion and what the districts raise locally. Technically, only state dollars go to vouchers, but the school boards argue that in reality they are being docked for both the state and local portions for each voucher student.

The stateís lawyers did not seem overly concerned with the school boards and teacher unions sued, since, normally, state courts give wide latitude to the will of the Legislature and the governor.

Those concerns heightened, however, when U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle ordered the state Department of Education into federal court to show that it was not getting in the way of his desegregation order.

At Mondayís hearing, apparently he did not buy the semantics of the stateís argument that no local money was being used. Instead, the judge agreed with the local school districtís position that the voucher law, however it is worded, results in the school board having less local money to carry out the judgeís order in the 47-year-old desegregation case.

The state, of course, can appeal, but it may soon have to fight on new fronts. Since many of the school boards suing the state also are under desegregation order, they no doubt will go in federal court soon to argue that the voucher and tenure laws interfere with their compliance efforts too, thus threatening to make hash of the governorís new order for education. Like other governors before him, Jindal may find that his power and control at the Capitol end at the federal courthouse steps.

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