Louisiana’s public school system is one of the worst in the country. In 2007, the federal government found that Louisiana ranked between 43rd and 50th in fourth and eighth grade English and math on national tests. In 2011, 44 percent of Louisiana’s public schools received a D or F in standards set by the state. Unless another generation of Louisiana’s schoolchildren was to be condemned to a failing educational system, the state needed to take bold, innovative steps.
That is exactly what it did when it passed Act 2, one of the largest school choice programs in the nation. Under Act 2, low-income students attending public schools rated C, D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education may apply for scholarships to more than 100 participating private schools. Louisiana parents showed their support for the program when more than 10,000 students applied to participate.
In June, however, Louisiana teachers’ unions and the statewide School Boards Association sued to force kids to remain in the public school quagmire. One teachers’ union even took the unprecedented step of threatening to sue any private school that accepted a child using a scholarship from the state to try to stop the exodus.
The bureaucrats and unions are not challenging whether Louisiana can provide state aid to children attending private schools. The Louisiana Constitution clearly permits the state to fund education at private schools—including those tied to churches and other religious groups. Rather, the plaintiffs claim that the state constitution does not permit the government to fund the system through Louisiana’s Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) system.
The MFP is a constitutionally mandated process for providing a minimum amount of funding for Louisiana’s public schools. It requires the government to do two things: establish a minimum level of funding for public schools, and ensure that this minimum level is distributed equitably to each parish school district. The plaintiffs are wrong in their litigation because Act 2 does not interfere with the constitutional process in any way.
The state chose to place the scholarship program in the MFP process for an important reason: Under the Louisiana Constitution, the MFP must be funded. If the plaintiffs succeed in getting the scholarship program out of the MFP process, it would mean there would be a partisan fight every legislative session over whether, and to what extent, the government should fund the program. To see the wisdom of this means of funding, just consider the yearly funding battles over Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarships.
IJ joined with the state of Louisiana to defend Act 2 in court because the program offers an educational lifeline to students. IJ represents two single mothers—Valerie Evans and Kendra Palmer—who want to send their kids to private schools in New Orleans and are using the program to do so. IJ is also representing an organization that was directly involved in passing Act 2—the Black Alliance for Educational Options.
The Louisiana Supreme Court has already upheld the trial court’s decision to allow the program to go forward, meaning thousands of parents can finally choose the school that is best for their children. The trial on the underlying legal issues is scheduled to start on October 15, 2012, and IJ will be there to ensure the voices of parents are heard.
The stakes could not be higher for Louisiana’s kids. The educational bureaucracy wants desperately to keep students in underperforming and failing public schools. But IJ will continue to stand with parents and students through every step on the path to victory.
Bill Maurer is executive director of the IJ Washington Chapter.