Parents Move to Intervene In Defense Of Louisiana’s New School Choice Program

John Kramer
John Kramer · July 9, 2012

Arlington, Va.—Parents and organizations of parents who support effective education reform will ask a Louisiana state court to allow them to intervene in defense of the state’s new school choice program. The program has been challenged by school boards and teachers unions seeking to preserve the state’s educational status quo. The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that is the nation’s leading legal advocates for school choice, has filed papers with the court seeking to represent these parents and school reform groups. The parents moved to intervene on Monday, July 9, 2012, in the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge.

In April 2012, Governor Bobby Jindal signed into law Act 2, his innovative effort to improve elementary and secondary education in Louisiana by giving parents more choices in the education of their children. Despite having been enacted only recently, response to the program from parents across Louisiana has been strong and positive. More than 5,000 applications from new families have been received, as well as renewal applications from the nearly 2,000 families in the preexisting New Orleans program.

The intervening parents and the Institute for Justice seek to support the new statewide voucher scholarship program that allows low-income families with children assigned to underperforming and failing public schools to apply for state scholarships to attend participating private schools of the parents’ choosing. For many families the new program represents their first opportunity to choose their children’s schools instead of having to accept assignment to the public school nearest their homes.

“This program is a lifesaver for my child,” said Valerie Evans, a school choice mom from New Orleans. “The Act 2 scholarship ensures that my child will be in a safe environment first and foremost. That means getting my son, Gabriel, out of a public school system that is filled with fear, confusion and violence, and getting him into a Catholic school where he will not only be safe, but will get the education he needs and deserves. Without a quality education from grade school, he won’t have the foundation he needs to get into college, graduate and be a success.”

Organizations and individuals committed to maintaining the status quo—including parish school boards and teachers unions—have filed three lawsuits challenging the program. They do not assert that the program itself is unconstitutional, only that it is unconstitutionally funded as part of the state’s Minimum Foundation Program and that its passage violated several procedural provisions of the state constitution.

Institute for Justice Attorney Bill Maurer, said, “The self-interested organizations challenging Louisiana’s school choice program have it wrong. When it comes to funding the education of students in the state, the government need only set a minimum funding level for elementary and secondary public schools and ensure that those funds are distributed equally among Louisiana’s public schools. Act 2 completely complies with that process and therefore the constitutional requirements are met.”

Because the success of these claims would take away scholarships from parents in the existing New Orleans program and the prospect of scholarships for families benefitting from its expansion statewide, two New Orleans parents are seeking to intervene to protect their opportunities to secure the best available education for their children. They are joined by two organizations that have long advocated for greater school choice in Louisiana, the Alliance for School Choice (ASC) and the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO).

Both ASC and BAEO have promoted parental choice programs for many years and have been especially active in Louisiana. Both organizations represented the parent perspective during the creation of the original New Orleans program four years ago and worked very hard to ensure its successful implementation. They redoubled their efforts in encouraging its expansion statewide. Both organizations are committed to the basic idea that parents, including low-income parents, are dedicated to the best interests of their children and deserve the power to move them out of public schools that fail to properly educate them.

The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm located in Arlington, Va., has served since its founding as the lawyers for the school choice movement. Besides providing legal counsel in the drafting and creation of school choice programs, IJ also assists in the legal defense of these programs if they are challenged. IJ successfully represented parents as intervenors in both school choice cases considered by the U.S. Supreme Court, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) and Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn (2011), as well as in cases upholding school choice programs decided by the supreme courts of Arizona, Ohio and Wisconsin.

“This choice plan is already up and running and serving parents and kids,” said IJ Senior Attorney Dick Komer. “It is imperative that the court not disrupt these kids’ education and pull them out of schools many have attended for years. If the court enjoins the program, thousands of kids will be thrown out of the only good schools they have ever known.”

“School choice programs like Louisiana’s are essential to ensuring not only that parents and their children have access to a quality education today, but that the public schools have every incentive to improve rather than ignore the educational needs of children entrusted to them,” said Chip Mellor, president and general counsel for the Institute for Justice. “School choice shakes up the status quo and empowers parents; that is just what the Louisiana educational system needs if children are to be well educated.”

Joining with the Institute for Justice to represent the parents and organizations are Greg Grimsal and Elizabeth Spurgeon, both of the New Orleans firm of Gordon Arata.