Judge rules against the Louisiana voucher program

19th Judicial District Courthouse
19th Judicial District Courthouse

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - District Court Judge Tim Kelley has ruled against Governor Bobby Jindal's Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program, or voucher program as it's commonly referred, saying the funding mechanism for the voucher program is unconstitutional.

After two days of testimony and closing statements on Friday, Kelley decided the lawsuit by the two Louisiana Teacher's Unions is valid.

State Judge Tim Kelley said the program improperly diverts money allocated through Louisiana's public school funding formula to private schools. He also said it unconstitutionally diverts local tax dollars to private schools.

Kelley ruled in a lawsuit backed by teacher unions and school boards seeking to shut down the voucher program and other changes that would funnel more money away from traditional public schools.

The state education department and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education said the programs were funded and created in line with the constitution.

Governor Bobby Jindal issued the following statement today regarding a court's ruling on the Louisiana Scholarship Program:

"Today's ruling is wrong headed and a travesty for parents across Louisiana who want nothing more than for their children to have an equal opportunity at receiving a great education. That opportunity is a chance that every child deserves and we will continue the fight to give it to them. The opinion sadly ignores the rights of families who do not have the means necessary to escape failing schools. On behalf of the citizens that cast their votes for reform, the parents who want more choices, and the kids who deserve a chance, we will appeal today's decision, and I'm confident we will prevail. This ruling changes nothing for the students currently in the program. All along, we expected this to be decided by the Louisiana Supreme Court."

It was not immediately clear how the ruling would affect more than 4,900 students now enrolled in 117 private schools with taxpayer dollars.

"They're supposed to go to an F- school, and that's what I do not want," said Tirany Howard, a mother of three voucher students.

Thanks to the voucher program, Howard has three children at Hosanna Christian Academy along with about 280 other children.

After Friday's ruling, Howard said she is disappointed and confused, but nevertheless hopeful.

"I'm still going to believe that they will be successful no matter what happens, but this makes it very difficult.  If this ruling passes, then that means that my children will have to go...I don't know what will happen actually," said Howard.

Judge Kelly said money from the Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP, is ear-marked for public education and spending it on private schools violates the state constitution.  It's a ruling that handed a victory to two teacher's unions and 43 state school boards.

Bill Maurer, a lawyer representing the State of Louisiana says "There is not going to be a problem for the remainder of the school year, but that is something we're going to have to look at a little more closely."

"As far as were concerned right now, this judge made a very clear emphatic ruling on what we have been saying all along," said Stephen Monaghan with Louisiana Federation of Teachers.

State Education Superintendent John White refused to talk to WAFB on camera saying he would issue a statement.  That statement simply said he strongly disagrees with the ruling.

The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education released the following statement:

Louisiana's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education strongly disagrees with a ruling issued today by the 19th Judicial District Court concerning Louisiana's Scholarship Program.

"This legal battle attempts to prevent children who have been assigned to persistently failing schools the opportunity for a better education at the school their parents have determined is in their best interest," Penny Dastugue, President of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), said.

"BESE strongly disagrees with today's ruling on funding for the Scholarship Program and will appeal for the sake of the 5,000 students participating in the program."

The court ruled that the establishment of the Scholarship Program was constitutionally valid; however the manner in which it is funded was found unconstitutional.

"That's what's so disappointing.  Those youngsters and parents will have to go back to those failing schools," said Rep. Stephen Carter.

Carter, a Republican from Baton Rouge, authored the bill this past legislative session.

"It was given to the MFP to educate their youngsters.  So it's not like, in my opinion, that we were taking money away from the MFP.  We were giving it to the parents who put the money into the MFP," said Carter.

As for where children need to go Monday morning, Hosanna Christian Academy's second-in-command Dana Trahan said business is normal.

"We're still going to be educating children.  Monday is going to be the same thing.  We prepare.  Teachers will prepare lesson plans and give tests, and students will come to school and continue educating people," said Trahan.

Because Judge Kelly did not issue an injunction, the ruling does not immediately force voucher students out of their private schools.

An appeal is expected.

Copyright 2012 WAFB. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.