Louisiana teachers were in court today to challenge Act 2, the nation’s most expansive statewide school voucher law passed this year, and the cornerstone of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform victories. In a trial which began this morning, Louisiana teacher unions argue that the law, which hands state money to private entities who take in public students, is unconstitutional.
In its challenge (PDF), the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and other plaintiffs argue that Act 2, which the Louisiana legislature hastily passed this spring, is unconstitutional because the statewide voucher program will divert funds meant for public schools to private entities, including private companies that run online education programs, and private schools, including religious schools. Louisiana teachers also argue that the state’s legislative process was abused, forcing lawmakers to vote on a law that got inadequate consideration.
“In the haste to steamroll these bills through the Legislature, the constitution was often treated like little more than a list of inconvenient suggestions,” LFT President Steve Monaghan said in a statement. “The passage of these laws has elevated legal challenges to acts of civic responsibility.”
The trial will be brisk; opening statements happened this morning, and Judge Timothy Kelley expects a ruling by the end of the week, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported. But both sides do not expect the legal fight, and the political conversation around the changing role of the nation’s public schools, to wrap up anytime soon.
Act 2, among several other sweeping education reforms, includes in it a statewide school voucher program which will pay private schools to educate Louisiana public school students from high-poverty families who are enrolled in poorly rated public schools. The flip side is that that state funding that goes to private programs, projected to run into the tens of millions of dollars, will be cut from the state’s public schools. More than half of Louisiana’s students, around 380,000 kids, are expected to qualify for the first round of the voucher program. The law will cover the full cost of tuition for students.
The law has been touted as a way to introduce competition into the public education sphere; the idea, according to Gov. Jindal and voucher proponents is that if public schools are treated like a marketplace, more competition will fuel better performance and results—gauged narrowly by improved test scores.
But under new accountability rules released this summer, private schools receiving state funding will not be held to the same standards that public schools are; schools receiving state funding for fewer than 40 students will not be penalized if their voucher students don’t reach basic competency in math, reading, science and social studies.
That lax accountability, combined with the fact that voucher programs and other schemes will seek to infuse market principles into public education turn up, at best, very mixed results about their efficacy, have sparked the political, and now legal debates, that are turning up in Louisiana today.