Voucher plan rejected in first court test
A New Orleans-based federal judge halted Gov. Bobby Jindal’s voucher program in Tangipahoa Parish on Monday, saying it conflicts with a decades-old desegregation case.
The ruling could have implications for the statewide program throughout Louisiana, since more than 30 of the 69 parish and city school districts are under federal desegregation orders, according to the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.
It is unclear what the implications will be for parishes not under a desegregation order, such as St. Mary Parish.
The school system here has been unitary since 1975.
Many of the parishes under desegregation orders also are participating in the voucher program, which covers 4,900 students around the state.
Locally, nine former public school students accepted scholarships to attend Central Catholic High School on its opening day under the program.
Deacon Vic Bonnaffee, principal at CCHS, said his school had 34 spaces available and 16 students applied to fill them. Out of those, 14 students were assigned. However, nine students attended the first day of classes.
The students who applied come from the Franklin, Patterson and Morgan City high schools in St. Mary Parish as well as Assumption High School in neighboring Assumption Parish, Bonnaffee said.
Central Catholic is the only school in St. Mary Parish accepting scholarship students.
U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle ruled that a series of sweeping education changes pushed by Jindal and passed by lawmakers earlier this year clash with court orders in Tangipahoa’s 47-year-old desegregation case.
Lemelle ordered a halt in Tangipahoa Parish, about 60 miles east of Baton Rouge, to the voucher program and changes in laws governing teacher salaries, job protection, and hiring and firing.
The voucher program pays private school tuition for some students from low-performing schools. School-system attorneys argue it diverts state money from local schools and from efforts to comply with orders in the 1965 desegregation case seeking equal treatment and funding for all students.
School leaders also claimed recently enacted changes to laws involving teacher pay and hiring-and-firing standards conflict with federal court orders that spell out required hiring practices in Tangipahoa Parish and are designed to increase the number of black instructors in the district.
Superintendent of Education John White said that the voucher program doesn’t affect the desegregation order and that officials will appeal the ruling.
Fifty students are enrolled in private schools in Tangipahoa Parish with taxpayer funds, and it wasn’t clear Monday when they would be required to move back to the public schools they left. The voucher program is available to students from low- to moderate-income families who would otherwise attend a public school graded with a C, D or F by the state.
White said Tangipahoa Parish school leaders haven’t offered any explanation as to why they can’t meet the financial requirements of the court order, and he noted the district was receiving more money this year from the public-school funding formula than last year.
“We are optimistic it will be reversed on appeal. Our concern is with the children and the families who have escaped failing schools. We are committed to ensuring that these children can continue their education in the schools chosen by their parents,” the superintendent said in a statement.
A hearing is planned in state court later this week for a lawsuit filed by two Louisiana teachers unions and dozens of local school boards, which claim the voucher program and other education changes that Jindal pushed through the Legislature are unconstitutional.
Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan praised the judge’s ruling.
“There is an old axiom that says ‘haste makes waste,’ and Gov. Jindal certainly created a lot of waste with the agenda that he rammed through the legislature last session,” Monaghan said in a statement. “There has been a waste of taxpayer dollars, a waste of time and a waste of resources that should have been dedicated to true education reform in our state.”
Additional reporting from The Associated Press.