Arlington, Va.—On Tuesday, March 19, 2013, the Louisiana Supreme Court will hear oral argument in a case that will determine whether thousands of low-income schoolchildren in the state will be able to continue to attend the schools of their choice or whether they will be forced back into underperforming and failing public schools. The case before the Louisiana Supreme Court is just the latest attack on school choice programs across the country by a sclerotic and unresponsive educational establishment.
The case, Louisiana Federation of Teachers v. State of Louisiana, concerns the state’s transformative Act 2 law, which finally gives options for students long-ignored by the educational status quo. Act 2 was passed by the Louisiana Legislature and signed by Governor Bobby Jindal last year. Act 2 expanded a pre-existing program called the “Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program” (SSEEP) and provides scholarships to students in a family “with a total income that does not exceed 250 percent of the current federal poverty guidelines” attending public schools rated C, D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education. Nearly 5,000 students are participating in the program and the number will grow as the program becomes more established.
Under this innovative program, parents can now choose to send their children to the school that is best for them. However, faced with either having to provide a quality education to those in their care or experience an exodus of children to private options, teachers’ unions and school boards immediately sued to stop parents from making that choice.
After a three-day trial in November 2012, a state trial court judge in Baton Rouge rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments that the Legislature had not followed certain procedural requirements in the Louisiana Constitution. The trial court nonetheless struck down the program because the court found that the program could not be funded through the state’s Minimum Foundation Program, a constitutionally created process that is used to fund almost all other educational options, including charter schools and specialty schools, in the state.
Valerie Evans and Kendra Palmer, two New Orleans parents who each have a son in the SSEEP program, and the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a school reform group that advocated for years for school choice in the Pelican State, intervened in the case, participated in the trial and immediately appealed the trial court’s judgment, as did the state of Louisiana. Evans, Palmer and BAEO are represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), the leading defender of school choice programs nationwide. The unions and school boards also appealed the portions of the trial court’s decision holding that the program met all the procedural requirements in the Louisiana Constitution.
“Without Act 2, far too many underprivileged schoolchildren in Louisiana would have no choice but to attend public schools that are failing or radically underperforming,” said Bill Maurer, an attorney with IJ who will be arguing the case before the high court. “When the framers of the Louisiana Constitution wrote the educational provisions of that document, they wished to achieve two things: one, guarantee a minimum level of funding for public schools, and two, preserve the state’s ability to respond to the needs of Louisiana schoolchildren. The state has done those two things here. Their choice to do so is perfectly consistent with the Louisiana Constitution.”
“Without this program, my son Gabriel would be forced back into an unsafe school where there’s very little education occurring,” said Valerie Evans. “The Act 2 scholarship means he gets a quality education at a Catholic school in an environment that is free from fear, confusion and violence. Without this program, we have no ability to pay for this school. I can’t see how the constitution of my state prevents my son from getting a good education in a safe environment.”
Dick Komer, an attorney with IJ and a leading expert in school choice programs, said, “For students attending schools that are rated ‘F’ by the state, anywhere from 62 to 100 percent of the students in that school are performing below basic proficiency, and for schools rated ‘D,’ 37 to 61 percent of the students perform below basic proficiency. Unfortunately, 36 percent of Louisiana’s public schools received a D or F rating. This is a catastrophic failure of public education. It can only be addressed by giving these schools an incentive to improve while allowing the students who are trapped in them now to access private options where they can obtain a quality education today.”
Maurer continued, “The Louisiana Constitution creates a floor beyond which the state’s educational offerings may not sink, but it doesn’t create a ceiling that would limit educational options the state may provide students. It is important that the state be able to fund SSEEP using this method because it provides greater certainty to parents and children that the funding for the option they have chosen will be there next year. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not foreclose the use of the Minimum Foundation Program to provide these options and they certainly had no intention to limit the state’s ability to innovate using this funding mechanism.”
Kenneth Campbell, president of BAEO, said, “The Louisiana scholarship program is more than just an alternative for the Black parents—it is an opportunity for children to escape failing schools and gain access to high-quality options that could mean the difference between their success or failure. It is disheartening to think that there are people who want to decide whether a child deserves to receive a high-quality education based on their family’s income or zip code. We believe that all of our children deserve better and we are committed to fighting for all educational options that give the Black children of Louisiana a chance to reach their highest potential today and in the future.”
Komer said, “Parents can and should be trusted to make responsible decisions regarding who educates their children, but the teachers’ unions and their allies don’t trust parents. Many opponents of choice have mocked parents and the possibility that they might make educational choices with which these opponents disagree. For these opponents, the only good choice is the one they like—public schools, even if that means condemning thousands of children to lives of poverty and ignorance. With programs like SSEEP, if a family does not like a school’s curriculum, they can go elsewhere. It is time those who blindly support objectively failing public schools as the only place a child should be schooled open their eyes and see these kids need options today if they’re to have any hope of learning.”
“This case is just the latest example of the proponents of a dysfunctional educational status quo using every means available to quarantine themselves from competition and accountability,” explained Institute for Justice President Chip Mellor. “They have challenged school choice programs across the country on every ground available to them and have largely been beaten back. We expect the same result here because Act 2 is constitutional. The time has come to focus our educational policies on children and not unions and bureaucrats.”