St. Mary Parish reaction to 2nd rejection of voucher program

MORGAN CITY, La. — Local reaction by educational leaders to Friday’s ruling that Gov. Bobby Jindal’s school voucher program is unconstitutional is positive.

The program that uses tax dollars to send students to private schools was ruled on by state Judge Tim Kelley who said it’s improperly funded through the public school financing formula.

“The MFP was set up for students attending public elementary and secondary schools and was never meant to be diverted to private educational providers,” Kelley wrote in a 39-page ruling.

Kelley, a Republican, didn’t rule on whether it’s appropriate to spend state tax dollars on private school tuition, leaving open the possibility for lawmakers to pay for the program in a different way. His decision was narrowly focused on the financing mechanism chosen by the governor and approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and lawmakers.

The governor, who made the voucher program and other educational changes a signature issue of his early second term, said the state will appeal the decision.

The ruling “correctly addressed the funding mechanism for the Student Scholarship Program,” Donald Aguillard, St. Mary public school superintendent said.

“At stake was the continued erosion of Minimum Foundation Program constitutionally guaranteed funding to public schools. Judge Kelley found that the use of MFP and locally generated funds must not be diverted by BESE to provide funding for the Student Scholarship Program or the developing Course Choice Program. Locally, very few of our students pursued educational opportunities via the Student Scholarship Program. The ruling issued by Judge Kelley provides a strong message to BESE, Gov. Jindal and the Legislature that funding for public education is constitutionally protected,” Aguillard said in an email this morning.

The St. Mary Parish School Board was one of more than 40 school boards across the state that filed challenging the constitutionality of Act 2. Suits also were filed by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators. The three suits were subsequently consolidated in the trial that took place last week.

St. Mary Parish School Board President Roland Verret said he is “pleased (Judge Kelly) said the constitution of the state was violated with regard to the voucher program … I believe that program was a deliberate attempt by the governor to degrade public education and to get rid of it entirely.”

Verret extended the hand of the school system to students.

“We will welcome the voucher students back into the fold in the St. Mary school system.”

However, with the program still being appealed students remain in their desks in the scholarship schools.

Central Catholic High School in Morgan City is the only St. Mary school accepting voucher students. Nine former public school students accepted scholarships to attend the school on its opening day.

The students who applied come from Franklin, Patterson and Morgan City high schools in St. Mary Parish as well as Assumption High School in neighboring Assumption Parish.

“Central Catholic High School follows the law of the state of Louisiana. The law passed by the state said there was a voucher program and Central Catholic High School participated in the voucher program. If it is decided through the court system that this law is unconstitutional Central Catholic will follow the law,” said Deacon Vic Bonnaffee, principal.

“Central Catholic High School decided to be a part of the voucher program to give the opportunity to students to be able to be part of our community which we believe has an academically enriched program and a personal attention to be able to meet the needs of students spiritually and academically. Therefore, Central Catholic High School will continue to have these students in their school to be able to give them the opportunities that they desire and want,” Bonnaffee said.

On Nov. 26, a federal judge halted the voucher program in Tangipahoa Parish, saying it conflicts with a decades-old desegregation case.

More than 4,900 students are enrolled in 117 private schools with taxpayer dollars across the state, in one of the largest voucher programs in the nation.That ruling could have implications in other Louisiana public school districts that are under federal desegregation orders.

More than 4,900 students are enrolled in 117 private schools with taxpayer dollars across the state, in one of the largest voucher programs in the nation.

Friday’s ruling was the second legal setback this week for the voucher program.

On Nov. 26, a federal judge halted the voucher program in Tangipahoa Parish, saying it conflicts with a decades-old desegregation case. That ruling could have implications in other Louisiana public school districts that are under federal desegregation orders.

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.

Jindal pushed the education changes through in the early weeks of the spring legislative session during marathon committee meetings and floor debates that drew vehement protests from teacher unions and others in the state’s education establishment.

“The political rhetoric of ‘pro-reform’ vs. ‘anti-reform’ hopefully is over,” said Scott Richard, head of the Louisiana School Boards Association. “We’re not anti-reform. We just want the political shell game to stop with public funding for public education.”

The education department estimated vouchers will cost about $25 million for the 2012-13 school year, with the taxpayer-financed tuition available to students from low- to moderate-income families who otherwise would attend public schools graded with a C, D or F by the state.

Kelley ruled the financing plan unconstitutional in two ways: by sending dollars to private schools and by diverting local tax dollars away from the public school districts for which they were approved.

The judge also ruled it was unconstitutional for two other programs pushed by Jindal to be financed through the public school funding formula. One program would provide college tuition money to high school students who graduate early. The other would allow students to take online and apprenticeship-type courses run by private companies and others outside of the public school system.

Both were still in planning stages and hadn’t started.

Jindal called the judge’s ruling “a travesty for parents across Louisiana who want nothing more than for their children to have an equal opportunity at receiving a great education.”

“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,” the governor said in a statement.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

St. Mary Now & Franklin Banner-Tribune

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Phone: 337-828-3706
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Morgan City Daily Review
P.O. Box 948, Morgan City, LA 70381
Phone: 985-384-8370
Fax: 985-384-4255

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