Educational Swamp: Lawsuits Target Louisiana’s New School Voucher Law

Louisiana's new voucher law heads to court.

Americans United has been closely following developments in Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal pushed a series of education bills, including a private school voucher plan, through the legislature.

Louisiana is in a heck of a fix. The state’s commitment to public education has always been lukewarm at best. Part of the problem is government officials have long been obsessed with finding ways to siphon money into the coffers of religious (mostly Catholic) schools. This goes all the way back to the days of Huey Long.

Jindal’s voucher scheme will only further undermine public education in the state. As we’ve reported here on “The Wall of Separation,” money is often being funneled to religious schools of dubious worth. (One pastor said he has ambitious plans to expand his voucher-subsidized school “on faith.”)

Can some sanity be brought to the Pelican State? Perhaps. Teachers and other public school advocates are banding together in Louisiana to challenge the voucher boondoggle in court. As many as three lawsuits may eventually be filed.

These lawsuits won’t be filed on church-state grounds. Unfortunately, that’s no longer possible.  Louisiana used to have strong language in its state constitution mandating the separation of church and state and barring the diversion of public funds to religious schools. That safeguard was removed in 1974 as part of a constitutional revision campaign led by sectarian lobbies.

Instead, Louisiana educators are arguing in court that the voucher bill violates another provision of the state constitution that says tax monies drawn from the Minimum Foundation Program must be used for “all public elementary and secondary schools, as well as to equitably allocate the funds to parish and city school systems.”

The education groups assert that this language means that tax money can only be spent on public schools, not diverted to private ones.

I hope they are successful in court. But in the meantime, other states should look at what happened in Louisiana as a cautionary tale. In Florida, voters are being asked to repeal that state’s strong church-state language, a provision that, like the one Louisiana once had, bars public funding of religious schools.

Floridians should ask themselves if they really want to emulate Louisiana’s example.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is just an issue affecting a few states. Some political ideologues are eager to make vouchers – and the privatization of public education – national policy.

In Washington, D.C., a taxpayer-funded voucher program has been operating for the past few years, despite several studies showing that it has not boosted the academic performance of the target population. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has just struck a deal with President Barack Obama to keep the federally subsidized program humming along.

In these tough economic times, tax resources should go only to the public school system – a system that 90 percent of Americans rely on for education.

Religious and other private schools have every right to exist. They have absolutely no right to ask you to pay their bills.