by Will Sentell – Capitol News Bureau
Louisiana is one of just four states that provide tax-funded scholarships or vouchers for rank-and-file students to attend private or parochial students, according to a national group that tracks policy trends.
Similar laws have been struck down by courts in several other states, says the National Conference of State Legislatures, known as NCSL.
The aid, and whether to greatly expand it, is expected to be a key issue during the 2012 regular legislative session, which begins on March 12.
Gov. Bobby Jindal, who says public school improvements will be his top priority this year, has repeatedly said that expanded school choice will be part of his plan, including a possible expansion of Louisiana’s existing scholarship program.
That assistance, which stems from a 2008 law, only applies to 1,500 low-income students in New Orleans and a maximum of $10 million per year in state funds.
The issue has been debated off and on in Louisiana since 1968.
In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the use of state tax dollars to help pay tuition at private and parochial schools does not violate the First Amendment’s required separation of church and state.
However, the decision failed to trigger the kind of assistance predicted at the time, which makes Louisiana like most other states.
The NCSL says that, as of October, only Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin offered vouchers for low-income students as well as the District of Columbia.
Like Louisiana the law in Wisconsin is limited to one city — Milwaukee. It has been in place since 1989 and has won national attention for years.
Over half of the state legislatures in the U.S. considered vouchers last year, but only Indiana passed such a law, said Josh Cunningham, an education specialist with the NCSL.
Proposals are pending in 15 states this year, he said.
“We expect those numbers to grow throughout the 2012 legislative session,” Cunningham said of state gatherings.
NCSL also says that Louisiana is one of eight states that pays for special-needs students to attend private schools.
The others are Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Oklahoma, Ohio and Utah.
Jindal and other backers of the aid call the assistance “scholarships.”
They say that students and families need them to escape failing public schools, especially knowing that 44 percent of schools here landed a “D” or an “F” last year in state-issued reports cards that rate school performance.
“Every child does not receive an equal opportunity to a quality education today,” Jindal said in his inaugural address on Jan. 9.
“That is a matter of fact, not a matter of opinion,” he said.
Teacher unions and other opponents call the aid “vouchers,” and contend that diverting state tax dollars to private and parochial schools robs public schools of vital dollars.
Leaders of the state’s two largest teacher unions, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators, have vowed to oppose any effort to expand the current program.
Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Mongahan noted that a legal challenge is under way to the Indiana law, which won approval last year.
According to the NCSL tabulation, courts have already struck down scholarship/voucher laws in Arizona, Colorado and Florida.
Monaghan said whether any law that wins approval here is challenged in court depends on the scope of the measure.
“I think the more invasive it is and the more it takes from the public treasury — it heightens the possibility that it ends up there,” he said of a possible court challenge.
Monaghan said it is no coincidence that few states have voucher/scholarship laws.
“There is no real clamor for this solution and yet it continues to come back up,” he said.
But Shree Medlock, national advocacy director for BAEO, the Black Alliance for Educational Options in Washington, D. C., said one reason that few states have voucher/scholarship laws is because officials have pursued a wide range of school options, including charter schools.
“There is a national push for vouchers,” said Medlock, who is former Louisiana director of the group.
BAEO says its mission is to increase access to high-quality education for black children.
- Indiana School Voucher Law Upheld, Ruled Constitutional (huffingtonpost.com)
- Federal judge upholds Indiana’s school voucher law (sfgate.com)
- Judge upholds Indiana school voucher law (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Judge upholds Indiana school voucher law (newsok.com)
- Election Victories Set Stage for Education Reform in Louisiana (prnewswire.com)
- Jindal easily wins 2nd term as Louisiana governor (politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com)
- Jindal begins second term (thehindu.com)
- Jindal takes oath for 2nd term as Louisiana Guv (ibnlive.in.com)
- Student loans may be issue in presidential race (timesoftexas.com)