Battle rages on over school voucher program
The scholarship program, also known as the voucher system, provides private school tuition for students who meet certain income criteria and live in the attendance zones of low performing public schools or are entering the school system for the first time as kindergartners.
District 5 School Board member John Smith also serves as the president of the Louisiana School Boards Association (LSBA). When elected earlier this year, he wrote a letter to all of the state’s school boards vowing to fight against the expansion of vouchers.
Smith said despite repeated warnings of the program’s unconstitutionality, the bill allowing the expansion of the program passed in the 2012 legislature anyway.
"Throughout the legislative session when it was pointed out to legislators that the passage of that legislation was unconstitutional, and they had not even figured out how they were going to implement it, their response was ‘we’ll just pass it and learn how to implement it later on and whatever happens and comes out of a lawsuit let it come out,’" Smith said.
Local legislators were split on the issue as it made its way through the capital.
Rep. Greg Miller (R-Norco) was one of few Republican representatives to break ranks with his party and vote against the bill and Sen. Gary Smith (D-Norco) was one of two Democratic senators to vote for the program.
G. Smith said J. Smith’s analysis of how the bill was passed is not accurate.
"I disagree with that," G. Smith said. "We passed a bill in Baton Rouge that gave authority to (State Superintendent of Education) John White - to put implementation into John White’s hands. There may have been a problem with the implementation of the bill rather than the bill itself."
Moments after Judge Timothy Kelley, of the 19th Judicial District in East Baton Rouge Parish, ruled on the case White released a statement.
"We strongly disagree with the ruling. We are optimistic this decision will be reversed on appeal," he said.
In his ruling, Kelley stated the way the voucher program is implemented is flawed because it takes money that is supposed to be used solely for public schools and puts it in non-public school systems.
J. Smith said he expects the Louisiana State Supreme Court to uphold the lower court’s judgment.
"There are a lot of other options they have for doing that other than using public money" J. Smith said. "For example, if we pass a 1 percent sales tax to help teacher’s salaries that money was thrown in the pot as well. You just can’t do that. That is a violation of law. I think the Supreme Court will uphold that and we are anxious to get there."
G. Smith said that if the bill is struck down on appeal, he believes the legislature will rework it and attempt to pass something that meets constitutional requirements next year.
"I have to look at the interests of not only our local students, but across the entire state," G. Smith said. "The unfortunate thing of this is that we have to look at the entire public school system. Although St. Charles Parish is not one of those areas, there are areas of this state where children are not getting what they deserve in the public school system."
The LSBA along with 43 local school boards, including St. Charles Parish, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and Louisiana Association of Educators lodged the lawsuit against the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Currently there are 27 St. Charles Parish students attending private schools under the program who may lose funding for their private school tuition if the program is disbanded. Most of those students attend Boutte Christian Academy, which received 19 scholarship students, 17 of which were kindergartners that prompted the opening of another kindergarten class this year.
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