Education

Jan 14, 2014 6:37 PM by AP

State voucher defense costs increasing by $750,000

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The price tag for defending Gov. Bobby Jindal's education policies against legal challenges is growing.

The Department of Education is boosting its contracts for outside lawyers by $750,000, to represent the department in lawsuits against Jindal's voucher program that uses tax dollars to send children to private schools.

A majority of members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education agreed Tuesday to the legal spending.

The education department's contract with Washington-based law firm Cooper & Kirk is growing from $150,000 to $650,000. The agency's contract with the Louisiana-based Faircloth Law Group - the law firm of Jindal's former executive counsel, Jimmy Faircloth - is rising from $20,000 to as much as $270,000.

"I regret that there is this litigation," said Superintendent of Education John White. But he added, "We have to defend our priorities in court."

Lee Barrios, a retired St. Tammany Parish teacher and critic of the voucher program, told BESE that the legal expense was a waste of taxpayer money.

Lawsuits were filed by two teacher unions and the state's school board association objecting to the voucher program's financing and by the U.S. Department of Justice challenging the program's compliance with federal desegregation orders.

The unions and school boards association won their lawsuit, with the Louisiana Supreme Court declaring the use of the public school formula to pay for vouchers unconstitutional. Jindal and lawmakers continue to fund vouchers, now outside of the public school formula.

The Justice Department lawsuit still is pending in federal court in New Orleans.

It's unclear how much the education department has spent defending itself and the Jindal administration against lawsuits since the governor pushed through the Legislature a series of sweeping education law changes in 2012. The department didn't immediately respond Tuesday to a request for a full tally of its legal costs.

White said the outside lawyers were hired because of the number of lawsuits and complexity of the work.

Two of the nine board members present at Tuesday's BESE hearing objected to the legal contracts: Lottie Beebe of Breaux Bridge and Carolyn Hill of Baton Rouge.

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