Voucher Victory!: Louisiana Court Strikes Down Private School Aid Scheme

Louisiana has a long and sorry record of attempting to divert tax money away from public schools and into the coffers of private religious ones.

There’s good news from Louisiana for a change. A state court on Friday struck down Gov. Bobby Jindal’s ill-conceived voucher plan, saying it violates a provision of the Louisiana Constitution governing education funding.

The challenge to vouchers in Louisiana was not brought on church-state grounds. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible.

Louisiana’s constitution used to contain a strong provision protecting separation of church and state, but it was removed in 1974 as part of a constitutional revision campaign led by sectarian lobbies, among them the politically powerful Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Unable to raise a church-state argument, a state teachers’ group asserted in court that the voucher bill violates another provision of the state constitution that says tax monies drawn from the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) must be used for “all public elementary and secondary schools, as well as to equitably allocate the funds to parish and city school systems.”

In court, the education groups argued that this language means that tax money can only be spent on public schools, not diverted to private ones. The court agreed.

“The MFP was set up for students attending public elementary and secondary schools and was never meant to be diverted to private educational providers,” wrote Judge Tim Kelley.

Not surprisingly, Jindal was not pleased. He called the ruling “a travesty for parents across Louisiana who want nothing more than for their children to have an equal opportunity at receiving a great education.”

Actually, the real travesty here is Louisiana’s refusal to make a serious investment in public education. The Pelican State has a long and sorry record of attempting to divert tax money away from public schools and into the coffers of private religious ones. This goes all the way back to the days of Gov. Huey Long, and Jindal’s voucher scheme is just the latest manifestation of that.

As I told the British newspaper The Guardian last week, Louisiana’s voucher program is an embarrassment. Because there is virtually no oversight built into the program, tax money is flowing to at least 20 fundamentalist Christian academies that teach creationism over accepted science.

Zack Kopplin, a Louisiana resident and college student who speaks out against creationism, noted that one institution, Claiborne Christian School, publishes a student handbook that vows to “look to the Bible as the main source of knowledge in all areas.”

Another school, Faith Academy, urges students to “defend creationism through evidence presented by the Bible versus traditional scientific theory.”

Private schools have the right to elevate theology over science, but Louisiana taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pay for it.

Jindal and his supporters say they will appeal Kelley’s ruling, so we haven’t seen the last of this controversy. But this is an important victory in round one. Here’s hoping the ruling holds up.