School Choice Denied: 400,000 Eligible Students Left in Limbo

Louisiana's controversial voucher program is ruled unconstitutional.

Governor Bobby Jindal's voucher plan was struck down in court last week. (Photo: Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

It’s back to the drawing board for Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

A state judge ruled Louisiana's extensive school voucher program unconstitutional on Friday in a 39-page ruling. The state can no longer use funds set aside for public education to pay tuition at private and parochial schools, Judge Timothy Kelley wrote in his decision.

But for now students can safely participate in the voucher program. That's because the judge didn't issue an immediate injunction to halt it, and students can continue to attend their schools pending an appeal. Jindal has said he plans to appeal the court's decision.

The judge did not focus on the use of state money for a religious education in the lawsuit, which was brought up by teachers unions and 43 school boards. Rather, he focused on the financial formula for public schools and how the voucher program diverts funds to private schools. To give public school money to private schools violates Louisiana’s constitution, he ruled.

More: School Vouchers: The Debate Heats Up Across the U.S.

Even without an appeal, Jindal and state legislators could continue the voucher program by making it a line item in the state budget. That would make vouchers subject to budget cuts like any other state program.

Jindal took to social media to express his dismay of the ruling. He called the ruling "wrong headed & a travesty 4 parents who want their children to have an equal opportunity at receiving a great education."

He tweeted, "That opportunity is a chance that every child deserves and we will continue the fight to give it to them. The opinion sadly ignores the rights of families who do not have the means necessary to escape failing schools.”

The governor added that he would appeal and that the state would prevail.

Jindal created the voucher program to ensure all students receive a fair education. The Louisiana education system is often ranked near last on academic surveys, and 953 of the state's 1,373 public K-12 schools were ranked C, D or F by the state’s department of education.

"How sad that bureaucratic funding formulas and public employee unions take precedent over parents wanting to give their children the best education possible," Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said in a statement. "We are confident that when this ruling is appealed, the Louisiana Supreme Court will rule in favor of kids and their parents' right to choose effective, safe schools."

But many voucher opponents argue that vouchers create negativity toward public schools, and further erode support for them.

"The voucher program proves that it's a lot easier to remove children from failing schools than to remove our failings as a society." Andre Perry, associate director for Education Initiatives Institute for Quality and Equity in Education at Loyola University, said. "The state should not give up on the higher principles our public schools should ascribe to. The answer is clear. The public needs better public options."

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers and School Employees (LFT) wants Jindal to call a special education legislative session to address school reform. They have a call to action on their website about the voucher program that, they say, diverts money to "unaccountable private and religious schools with questionable curricula, and to largely unaccountable for-profit 'course providers.' "

If the voucher program is upheld by an appeals court, Louisiana public schools could be in dire straits. This school year, the program has a cap on how many students are allowed to apply. That's not the case in the 2013-14 school year when nearly 400,000 children out of Louisiana's 700,000 will become eligible for vouchers.

While public schools are monitored by the state Department of Education, private schools are not. So in that regard, it's unclear if students will actually receive a better education at a private, religious or online school.

Do you think vouchers are the way to fix education in America? Share your thoughts in comments.

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