BATON ROUGE, La. -- As the legislature scrabbled to restore money for some 8,000 students in danger of losing their MFP-funded scholarships to private schools, in the wake of a Supreme Court decision, the state’s most prominent pro-voucher group, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, held a rally last Wednesday to keep the program going.
The African-American advocacy group demonstrated the unusual convergence between Black activists and prominent Republicans on the subject of school choice, but their rally occurred as the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the State Senate kept going back and forth arguing who had the ability to amend the state budget to keep the vouchers funded.
The BAEO leadership estimated that close to 1,000 people attended the gathering on the steps of the State Capitol. Governor Jindal made a rare appearance at an educational protest declaring, “This is about pursuing the American dream. We must not go backward.” Jindal has been absent from any recent public school gatherings in recent weeks.
Howard Fuller, National Board Chair of BAEO, told The Louisiana Weekly, “We should not live in a country where only parents with money can decide where to send their children to school. If funds are not allocated to save this program now, the impact could be devastating to thousands of low income and working class families in Louisiana who already have very limited educational options.
Are we okay with sending these parents the message that their children do not deserve a quality education?”
The thousands to which Fuller referenced amount to almost 5,000 children currently participating in the program and an additional 3,000 who have been awarded scholarships for the upcoming school year.
Moreover, interest has continued to grow in the last year with 12,000 parents applying to enroll their children for the 2013‐2014 school year.
Ken Campbell president of BAEO told LouisianaToday.com, “the court’s ruling, to us clarifies that the voucher program is legal. Now we go into a position where we have to fight for dollars for these kids that just want an education.”
Campbell expressed hope the rally will motivate lawmakers to find another way to come up with the money, noting, “this is the time to look at our priorities, and I think right now, we have to look to the future of these children. We also have to look towards the future of the state of Louisiana, and I don’t think there’s anything more important than ensuring our kids receive a quality education.”
Campbell said if nothing else, they plan to show through the rally that the kids they’re fighting for are worth fighting for. “We shouldn’t live in an America where only people with money get to choose if their children should receive a quality education. I think America is better than that.”
The controversy began March 7, 3012, when in the case of Louisiana Federation of Teachers v. State of Louisiana, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that the state’s so called “school choice” voucher program could not be funded through the Maximum Foundation Program (MFP), a mechanism the court decided is reserved for public schools. Tuesday’s 6-1 decision does not affect whether Louisiana can have a school choice program; it only means that that program cannot be funded through the MFP.
The state’s Act 2 law, passed by the Louisiana Legislature and signed by Governor Bobby Jindal in 2012, expanded a pre-existing private school tuition voucher program called the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence program (SSEEP), which provides vouchers to students in families “with a total income that does not exceed 250 percent of the current federal poverty guidelines,” if the child is also attending a public school rated C or below by the Louisiana Department of Education. The SSEEP vouchers help pay for these children to attend a private school of choice.
The Louisiana Federation of Teachers sued to stop SSEEP, claiming it is another attempt to siphon off public funds to private interests, which in turn weakens New Orleans’ already tenuous public school system. “We were fighting to not starve out the funding these public schools need to rehabilitate,” says President of United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) Larry J. Carter Jr. “We aren’t against vouchers, but the funding stream is unconstitutional. They wanted MFP shifted from public school to private and parochial schools, and the constitution spoke to that, and that’s what we fought against.”
The Supreme Court upheld a District Court ruling that the MFP was constitutionally mandated to only fund public schools, and as such also nullified the 2012-13 MFP, saying the Legislature didn’t follow proper procedure. That meant the state automatically reverted to the previous year’s funding formula.
This caused a dual problem, both ostensibly cutting off the voucher funds, and leaving the budget severely indebted to local school districts. The problem was that under the constitution, the MFP can only be amended by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, with the legislature either approving or rejecting their proposal by an up or down vote. As the rally gathered outside the Capitol at 1 p.m., the Senate Education committee had sent it back to BESE, only to get the same MFP back, hand-delivered, by day’s end.
BESE President Chas Roemer had released a statement on Monday arguing that BESE had no need to revisit the 2013-14 funding formula. The original did include vouchers, yet also contained a clause that severed the private school portion if the court found it unconstitutional.
That argument held with sway with Senate Education Committee Chair Conrad Appel, who sent the funding bill back to BESE for revision. Senate’s lawyers argued that legislation stated the voucher portion would be severed if the Baton Rouge district court decision “is not reversed by the Louisiana Supreme Court.”
The high court upheld parts of the district court decision but overturned others, most notably the Jindal Administration’s teacher and school evaluation reforms.
Appel did not have to wait long. Roemer replied within hours. According to the BESE Chairman, the Senate Ed Committee did not work off the last draft passed by BESE. Severance occurred if “the funding mechanisms … are held to be unconstitutional.” His staff, Roemer explained, had accidentally submitted language from a draft version rather than the final copy in their letter to Appel.
Said Bill Maurer, an attorney with IJ who argued for SSEEP before the high court, “The education provisions of the Louisiana Constitution were designed to provide a quality education to Louisiana school children. [The court’s] decision undermines that purpose. For the thousands of families who wish to exercise a choice to send their children to the school that is best for them, these private alternatives now must be funded through annual appropriations, and will be subject to the yearly efforts of the politically powerful representatives of the educational status quo to stop any effort to provide real competition.”
Rally organizers saw State Superintendent John White maintaining that the vouchers will be restored by simply subtracting $40 million from the MFP. Since the students never attended public school, the schools need not be paid for non- existent pupils. Once subtracted, the money automatically returns to the state’s general fund, where a line item can task it pay for this year’s and next year’s voucher program.
Given the governor’s difficulties with the legislature after the botched tax reform debacle, though, it is hardly as simple as White suggested. The final vote could be close. After all, last year’s original MFP passed the House with just 51 votes, the bare minimum needed for a resolution, instead of the 53 required to enact a Bill. The governor, lacking the added two votes, called the resolution approving the BESE budget, “sufficient,” but the Supreme Court disagreed in its ruling. It must pass as a Bill, and Jindal must now find 53 votes in a legislature even more discontented than last year.
Still, White did say that the separate education program that will let public school students take free online classes taught by private organizations and universities—that was slated to begin statewide next year—will instead start as a smaller, pilot program because of the court ruling, funded entirely by his departmental budget.
The Supreme Court said like vouchers, it is unconstitutional to pay for the “Course Choice” program through the public school financing formula, so the program next year will come from the budgets for the state education board and the education department. Though, the final cost and from which programs White will draw the funds remained unclear as this newspaper went to press.
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