Why a Louisiana judge ruled school vouchers unconstitutional

A Louisiana state judge sided today with opponents of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s sweeping private school voucher program, ruling that it is unconstitutional because it improperly diverts public state and local money intended for public schools to private institutions.

Exactly what will happen to the more than 4,900 students now receiving money for vouchers is unclear, though it doesn’t seem likely that they will have to return the cash. Expect an appeal. Still, Jindal and members of his education team, who unsuccessfully argued that they had set up the program by the constitutional book, are now going to have to rethink it.

The ruling by State Judge Tim Kelley wasn’t terribly surprising to some people; even some voucher supporters thought Jindal’s program was too aggressive. The Associated Press said that Kelley’s 39-page ruling concluded that the voucher program violates provisions in the state constitution regarding the Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP, which determines how public schools are funded. “The MFP … was never meant to be diverted to private educational providers,” Kelley’s ruling said.

What Jindal’s team has been doing is implementing a voucher program, potentially the country’s largest, as a result of a new law that in part allows the state to offer vouchers to more than half of its students, or some 450,000 students. About 10,000 have applied, with most of the slots given to Christian schools, some of which didn’t really have the resources to handle the influx. They also use curriculum that promotes Young Earth Creationism, the belief that Earth is no older than 10,000 years old — and that human beings lived alongside dinosaurs — despite definitive scientific consensus that it is billions of years old.

People are free to ignore science at will, but that doesn’t mean they should get public tax dollars to do it.

But there’s more to know about the Louisiana voucher program: Jindal and his team put in place an accountability system for the voucher schools that doesn’t actually hold many of them accountable. To be specific, a school can allow 39 voucher students to fail to show basic competence in reading, math, social studies and science with absolutely no consequence. State funds will keep pouring in.

Public school advocates have argued for many years that voucher programs divert money unconstitutionally from public education. Courts at different levels have ruled both ways on the subject. In Louisiana, the program was challenged in court by the state’s two teachers unions and dozens of school boards.

Over in Indiana, where officials are implementing the country’s other state-wide voucher program, the Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in a challenge to it (you can hear the court arguments by clicking here). The 12 Indiana residents who are plaintiffs in that case argue that the program violates the Indiana constitution’s directive that the state educate children through a “system of Common schools,” as well as its provision that residents not be compelled to support religious institutions through their taxes.

The Indiana justices asked questions that suggested they are concerned about the constitutionality of taxpayer money going to fund religious institutions.  As I wrote in this post, a telling exchange came after Solicitor General Thomas Fisher argued that the program did not violate the state constitution because the money was really going to parents who used it to pay tuition at the school of their choice. Justice Stephen David asked what would happen if nearly all Indiana students wound up at religious schools with voucher money.  “What if 97 percent of kids end up going to religious schools?” he said. “That is altering the state of education.”

Yes, it is.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | November 30, 2012