Court to Decide on Constitutionality of Louisiana Voucher Program

In July, a Louisiana judge refused to grant an injunction to halt the state’s sweeping school voucher program. The question over the program’s constitutionality remains, however, and will soon be settled by the courts.

When the law, spearheaded by Gov. Bobby Jindal, was first enacted in June, the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), along with the Louisana Federation of Teachers and  a number of school boards, filed a lawsuit to challenge the law. The legislation is unconstitutional “by diverting, to non-public schools and other non-public entities, funds that are constitutionally mandated to be allocated to public elementary and secondary schools to insure a minimum foundation of education,” the lawsuit said. One month later, District judge Tim Kelley ruled that he could not grant the injunction they requested.

“The courts only denied our request for a spending halt; the merits of the case have not yet been determined,” LAE President Joyce Haynes said. “The constitutionality of these laws is still very much in question. Until a final decision is made on the merits, we will continue our appeal to the courts.”  A ruling is expected later this month.

LAE attorney Brian Blackwell said state education officials should have agreed to delay funding until courts had decided whether funding non-public education with the voucher program was constitutional. Otherwise, families that use vouchers to attend private schools could be responsible for paying back the tuition if the program is found unconstitutional.

“We were hoping to prevent the recipients of funds from having to pay back the money when the courts hear the case,” Blackwell said. “If Superintendent White and members of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education were so confident in the legality of these laws, they should have agreed to litigate this case quickly, rather than have it go beyond August 1.”

Haynes said the LAE is still committed to making sure every child in Louisiana has access to a quality public school education.

“This is about protecting the constitutional rights of all Louisiana’s school children—not just a select few,” Haynes said. “Our state constitution promises that every child in Louisiana will be provided with an educational setting that will give them the opportunity to develop to their full potential and that’s exactly what we’re trying to protect.”

Louisiana schools have already faced steep cuts in state funding, and for the fourth year in a row, they received less money in state funding than they had been scheduled to receive.

“At a time when we need more, we’re getting less,” she said.

Voucher programs shuttle money that could be used to improve public schools into private school tuition, and since private schools are subject to less regulation than public schools, it’s not always clear what the money is spent on.

“The children are caught [in the middle],” she said. “I hope they end up with a certified teacher who knows how to teach.”

She explained that some schools, including charter schools, don’t require teachers to have the same certification they would need to teach in a public school.

Louisiana’s voucher program is the most extensive in the country, using tens of millions of dollars to send kids to private schools, but other voucher programs are popping up all over the country. In 2011, more states than ever before considered school voucher programs: 42 states in all. Most programs were specifically for special needs children, children in foster care, or children with parents in the military. Last year, nine states voted to create or expand school voucher programs.

The National Education Association opposes school vouchers because they divert essential resources from public schools to private and religious schools, while offering no real “choice” for the overwhelming majority of students.

Although proponents of school voucher programs say the programs give students and their parents more choices about their education, voucher programs actually limit the choices most students have — particularly for students with special needs, behavior problems or low test scores, who wouldn’t necessarily succeed at private schools. And  research has shown time and again that voucher programs do not improve student achievement, and a 2006 study by the Department of Education found that public schools actually compare well to private schools.

“NEA believes a better approach involves strategies to transform those schools so that they can become enriching environments for teaching and learning and community involvement,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “This is far more effective and can even be less expensive than vouchers, which do little or nothing to improve the lives of either the students who receive them or the thousands of children they would leave behind.”