Judge doesn’t close door on vouchers

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A district judge’s ruling against Gov. Bobby Jindal’s voucher program contained a critical caveat that, if the ruling is upheld, gave the governor a roadmap for maintaining one of his signature education achievements.

While he ruled that Jindal and lawmakers unconstitutionally financed the voucher program, Baton Rouge-based Judge Tim Kelley didn’t weigh in on whether it was improper to spend state tax dollars on private school tuition.

If the Louisiana Supreme Court agrees with Kelley’s decision, it’s not exactly back to the drawing board for the Republican governor. Instead, Jindal would need to seek financing for vouchers through the regular annual budget process – a process that is heavily-influenced by the governor’s office.

It’s not the way Jindal might have preferred because it’s fraught with political pitfalls, partisan wrangling and concerns about budget shortfalls. It also would give lawmakers the opportunity to take an individual vote on the voucher program, rather than a vote on all education financing plans at once.

But it means the court ruling doesn’t have to jettison the governor’s entire voucher program, if the governor can persuade lawmakers to pay for it. A previous New Orleans-only voucher program pushed by Jindal had been funded that way since 2008 without a court challenge.

Kelley, a Republican, ruled the taxpayer-subsidized private school tuition was improperly funded through the public school financing formula, called the Minimum Foundation Program or MFP. His ruling sided with arguments presented by teacher unions and school boards who criticize the voucher program as siphoning dollars away from public schools.

“The MFP was set up for students attending public elementary and secondary schools and was never meant to be diverted to private educational providers,” Kelley wrote in a 39-page ruling.

The judge made it clear his decision was narrowly focused on the financing mechanism.

“This has nothing to do with whether or not public funds can be used to support vouchers,” Kelley said before announcing his ruling.

Jindal, who made the voucher program and other educational changes a hallmark initiative of his early second term, said the state is appealing the decision. He called it a travesty for parents.

“The opinion sadly ignores the rights of families who do not have the means necessary to escape failing schools,” the governor said in a statement.

More than 4,900 students are enrolled in 117 private schools with taxpayer dollars, in one of the largest voucher programs in the nation. The education department estimated vouchers will cost about $25 million for the 2012-13 school year, a cost that would grow each year as new students are added.

Kelley also ruled it was unconstitutional for two other programs pushed by Jindal to be financed through the public school funding formula. One program would provide college tuition money to high school students who graduate early. The other would allow students to take online and apprenticeship-type courses run by private companies and others outside of the public school system.

Both were still in planning stages and hadn’t started.

Jindal pushed through the education changes in the early weeks of the legislative session during marathon committee meetings and floor debates that drew vehement protests from teacher unions and others in the education establishment.

The governor’s bigger problem in maintaining the voucher program could rest with a separate ruling from a federal judge that came down only days before Kelley’s decision. The federal court ruling threatens to jettison the program entirely in some parishes, not just force a change in financing.

U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle in New Orleans halted the voucher program in Tangipahoa Parish, saying it conflicts with a 47-year-old desegregation case seeking equal treatment and funding for all students in public schools.

Lemelle’s decision could have implications in other school districts under federal desegregation orders, if those districts choose to file lawsuits. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers says more than 30 of the 69 parish and city school districts are under such orders, and many of them are participating in the voucher program.

The federal judge’s ruling, too, is being appealed.