Judge blocks Gov. Bobby Jindal's signature school voucher program

The nation's boldest school voucher program made nearly half of Louisiana's students eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools. A state judge ruled the plan unconstitutional, setting up a funding fight in an age of austerity.

Michael Conroy/AP
Phillip Covington helps his son Giovanni with a math lesson at Todd Academy in Indianapolis. Struggling Indiana public school districts have launched a marketing campaign to persuade parents not to move their children to private schools as the nation's largest voucher program doubles in size.

In a major blow to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's school reform efforts, a state judge on Friday found that Gov. Jindal's signature state school voucher program, which makes nearly half the state's students eligible to attend private schools, is unconstitutional.

Louisiana's program, pushed through in April by Jindal, allows families of four making no more than $57,000 a year to receive vouchers for private schools. Its goal is to impose competition on public schools while allowing poorer parents to move their children out of failing schools. About 450,000 Louisiana pupils are eligible.

Teachers unions have blasted the program, complaining that some of the private schools receiving the money focus on so-called Young Earth Creationism over evolution. A judge hearing a separate voucher lawsuit in New Orleans last week agreed with another complaint: That the voucher program threatens to undermine federal desegregation orders that are in effect in 30 school districts around the Pelican State.

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While Jindal will appeal Judge Tim Kelley's ruling to the Louisiana Supreme Court, the ruling's main importance is how it's likely to create more debate about how to fund state voucher plans, which currently are in place in 12 states, about half designed for children with certain disabilities.

Teachers unions brought the lawsuit in Louisiana, while 12 families have brought a lawsuit currently being mulled by the Indiana Supreme Court over similar issues: whether state law mandates that taxpayer money go exclusively to public, or common, schools.

Friday's ruling is a big disappointment for Jindal, who's widely seen as a rising star in the Republican Party’s stable of nationally competitive candidates, potentially for president. The voucher plan embodies several tenets of national educational philosophy being touted by Republicans, particularly the goal, as with charter schools, of breaking teacher unions’ hold on failing schools by empowering parents.

The "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,” Jindal said.

But the gambit has also been ensnared by criticisms over the curriculum of parochial private schools. In some of those schools, instruction is focused on creationism over evolution. At the same time, the US Supreme Court has affirmed the right of religious institutions to receive taxpayer funds through vouchers, as long as the state itself isn't advocating a particular faith.

In an at-times emotional trial, state lawyers argued that as long as Louisiana funded public schools at adequate and equitable levels the state could divert some education funds to parochial and other private schools to boost parental school choice.

While he didn't strike down that philosophy more broadly, Judge Kelley took issue with how the program dovetailed into the state's complex school funding formula, called the Minimum Foundation Program, which Kelley ultimately interpreted as being intended solely for public schools.

The approximately 5,000 students already enrolled in the program will be able to continue for the time being, even as the state education officials scramble to find alternative funding sources. One option is for the state to use its general fund to pay for the program, as it already has, most notably, to fund a city voucher program in New Orleans.

That, however, is likely to be a tough sell in a state already facing a $1 billion budget shortfall, and where lawmakers already have had to make steep cuts in its charitable public hospital system that benefits the poor and uninsured.

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