Louisiana Divided: Jindal’s Voucher Law Dragged Into Court

Religious education is at the center of the ongoing controversy.

Low-income kids have the choice to avoid their local failing public school to attend private schools in Louisiana. Unions are up in arms because funds are being funneled away from public schools. (Photo: MCT via Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Earlier this year, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed a controversial statewide voucher program into law.

Teachers unions and 43 school boards are less than pleased, and this week they challenged the program in court.

Jindal’s “Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Programallows for poor and middle-income public school students to receive vouchers to attend one of 120 private schools, including small, Bible-based church schools. The current court case challenged the constitutionality of the program, which was passed by the legislature, because it takes tax dollars away from public schools and funnels the funds into private, and often religious, schools.

More: Louisiana Vouchers: Will the Education Experiment Work?

“In the haste to steamroll this bill through the legislature, the Constitution was often treated like little more than a list of inconvenient suggestions,” Louisiana Federation of Teachers Steve Monaghan said in a statement at the start of the hearing on Wednesday.

Louisiana, like Indiana, has created one of the country’s largest voucher programs. According to the Louisiana Department of Education, nearly 5,000 students are enrolled in 117 private schools that currently costs the state about $25 million.

Many parents seek vouchers because they believe a better education exists outside their district, which may be ranked poorly by a state department of education. Some parents even call vouchers “lifesavers.” In Louisiana, 953 of the state's 1,373 public K-12 schools were ranked C, D or F by the state’s department of education.

But the debate about school choice and vouchers is one that divides teachers, parents, and communities.

In August, C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and president of the national Interfaith Alliance, wrote a letter to Jindal, calling the voucher program “a ruthless attack on public education.” Gaddy said the program violated the separation of church and state. He said then that the vouchers allowed students to attend schools that taught an anti-history and anti-science curriculum.

Other critics point out that one New Orleans religious school, whose leader calls himself a “prophet,” would receive $700,000 under Jindal’s program. The Louisiana voucher program initially began in New Orleans before stretching into the rest of the state.

Earlier this week, the voucher program faced another setback when U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle in New Orleans halted the program in Tangipahoa Parish. He said that vouchers conflict with a 47-year-old desegregation case. Many school systems throughout the South, where there is a strong push for vouchers by Republican governors, are still under federal oversight because of past segregation practices. The Louisiana Department of Education plans to appeal the ruling.

The entry of desegregation into the voucher controversy could be bad news for Jindal.

Dr. Charles Gallagher, chair of the sociology department at Philadelphia’s La Salle University, says that schools in the South are actually becoming more segregated because of suburban growth, a shift by whites from public to private schools and the creation of charter schools. And vouchers, he says, contribute to the problem.

“Vouchers, in practice and effect, benefit those who have the means to send their children to private schools, which tends to lead to majority white schools and increase segregation,” Gallagher said in an interview. “Vouchers are a way to subsidize the schooling of the white middle class by steering these children away from public schools which tend to be more racially and socioeconomically diverse.”

But Jindal doesn’t see it that way.

When he signed the bill into law in May, he said, “Every child deserves the opportunity to get a great education. Regardless of a child’s last name, zip code, race, gender, or the amount of money their parents make, no child should be trapped in a failing school.”

Do you think vouchers are a good idea? Share your thoughts in comments.

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