Education

Jun 29, 2012 6:25 PM by AP

State launches defense of voucher program

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Lawyers defending Louisiana's new private school tuition voucher program against lawsuits by teacher unions and school administrators made their legal arguments public Friday, the last day parents could apply to get their students enrolled in the program.

The voucher program, pushed through the recent legislative session by Gov. Bobby Jindal, is aimed at children from low- to moderate-income families who attend low-performing public schools. It would allow those children to attend private schools at taxpayer expense.

Lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the program have been filed by the states' two major teacher unions and, just this week, by members of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

Opponents allege that Jindal and lawmakers are improperly paying for the voucher program, home-schooling, online courses, college tuition and independently run charter schools that won't be affiliated with local school systems. They claim the state constitution bars the use of the state education funding formula, known as the Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP, for anything besides public school financing.

State-hired lawyers led by Jindal's former executive counsel Jimmy Faircloth argue that the formula is a budgeting tool - not an actual appropriation of money - and that there is nothing unconstitutional about using state money for private school vouchers. The state education system and MFP "are for the benefit of public school students, not public school districts," the state's court papers, released Friday by the governor's office, said.

State-hired lawyers also dispute the contention that the voucher bill was unconstitutional because it dealt with multiple subjects, including the formation of charter schools and state takeovers of local schools. The state argues the bill is constitutional because all of its elements are reasonably related, and goes on to dispute other arguments that the bill and formula were improperly passed.

Opponents also argue that the program effectively diverts money meant for local schools and raised through local taxes to private schools in violation of the state constitution because MFP allocations to districts are based in part on the amount of local school taxes raised in a district.

The voucher opponents are misinterpreting the constitution, the state's lawyers said, arguing that the constitution allows public education money to "follow the child."

The voucher system approved by the Legislature is an expansion of a limited program that was already in effect in New Orleans. In May, the state said 124 private schools have been approved statewide for the voucher program, with some 5,000 slots added to more than 2,000 available in New Orleans.

Friday was the deadline for families to apply for vouchers. Statewide, about 7,400 voucher slots are available. The final number of applicants won't be known until after July 8, state education department spokesman Barry Landry said. As of Friday, there were 7,800 applicants. At schools where there are more applicants than available seats, vouchers will be awarded by lottery.

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