Louisiana Supreme Court rules school voucher funding unconstitutional

The Supreme Court of Louisiana ruled 6 to 1 on Tuesday that the way the state funds its school voucher program is unconstitutional and that public money now being used to pay private and religious school tuition should instead be going to public schools.

Just a few weeks ago, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that that state’s school voucher program is constitutional. That court ruled that the money is going to families, who use it as they wish, rather than the schools themselves, which the justices believe is an argument that gets around the separation of church and state.

The Louisiana ruling, which you can see here at  nola.com, hit at Gov. Bobby Jindal’s prized voucher program, which began last year. Challenging the program in court were the Louisiana Association of Educators, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana School Boards Association.

The justices said that it was not their job to evaluate “the merits” of the voucher program but only whether it is constitutional. They said that the per-student funding formula for the program  “unconstitutionally divert[s] MFP funds to nonpublic entities in violation” of the Louisiana Constitution.

The voucher program was part of a 2012 school reform program that allows the state to offer vouchers to more than half of Louisiana students, expand the number of privately managed charter schools and give letter grades to preschoolers. Opponents have called it nothing less than an assault on public education.

Some 5,000 students are using vouchers this year, even though 450,000 students were eligible, and about 8,000 were recently approved to get voucher money for next year. Many of the voucher students attend private Christian schools which use curriculum that promotes Young Earth Creationism, which holds the belief that the universe is no older than 10,000 years old despite definitive scientific evidence that it is billions of years old. Many of the schools teach things as fact that are actually fantasy, such as that humans co-existed with dinosaurs.

Though Jindal talks a lot about “accountability,” the system to hold voucher schools “accountable” would be laughable if we weren’t talking about kids and education. Under the Jindal accountability scheme, private schools with fewer than 40 voucher students wouldn’t have to show basic competency among its students in math, reading, social studies and science.

A student named Zach Kopplin has been exposing the voucher program for some time, and designed a database with information about the schools in the program, which you can find here. In this post, he described some of the things that schools in the program teach to students:

 A school in Louisiana calls scientists sinful men.  A school in Florida calls evolution the way of the heathen.  Some schools in Indiana take their kids to the creationism museum.  This blog post for PBS highlights some of the best examples of what’s being taught.

It is unclear what will happen to students now in the voucher program. Jindal, in a statement, said he would find a different way to fund the program:

… We’re disappointed the funding mechanism was rejected, but we are committed to making sure this program continues and we will fund it through the budget. The bottom line is that our kids only get one chance to grow up and we are committed to making sure choice is alive and families can send their children to the school of their choice.

This is a statement released by the Louisiana School Boards Association about the ruling:

We are pleased that the Louisiana Supreme Court has reaffirmed a basic tenet of the state Constitution — that taxpayer money should go to public schools that are open to all students. We hope all state residents can understand the dangerous precedent that a voucher scheme has set and how such a program undermines our local community schools. LSBA will continue to work towards its mission of service, support and leadership for local school boards and to ensure a quality public education for all students.

The Louisiana and Indiana rulings leave the voucher issue where it was before: muddled legally. Practically, the push behind vouchers is clear: These programs are in large part a push to privatize public education. Public dollars should go to public schools. That’s what President Obama thinks, even if he supports a lot of other school reforms that also bend toward privatization.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · May 7, 2013