In a setback for Gov. Bobby Jindal's drive to overhaul the state's education system, the Louisiana Supreme Court on Tuesday said the state can't fund its landmark voucher initiative with money meant for public schools.
But Mr. Jindal, a Republican, vowed that his contentious "scholarship program" will go forward despite Tuesday's decision, pledging to find another revenue source to pay for it.
"We are committed to making sure choice is alive," he said.
The system, one of the most ambitious vouchers efforts ever attempted in the United States, had been set up to take money from students' state allocations and use it to cover the cost of attending a private or religious school. In its ruling, the court said that Louisiana's "minimum foundation program" — the state's per-student allocation for each child to attend a public school — can't be used for anything else.
The court made clear that it wasn't passing judgment on the program itself. The decision dealt only with the diversion of dollars meant for public schools that the court struck down in its 6-to-1 decision.
"The constitution prohibits those funds from being expended on the tuition costs of nonpublic schools and nonpublic entities," said the majority opinion from Justice John Weimer.
About 8,000 students have been approved for vouchers in the upcoming school year. Rather than use money meant for public schools to help fund their tuitions, Mr. Jindal said the state will find money somewhere else in its budget.
The case was brought by a coalition of education groups including the Louisiana Federation of Teachers union, the Louisiana School Boards Association and others. Those groups and the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest teachers union and an organization deeply opposed to vouchers, applauded the Louisiana decision.
"Today's decision is a stinging rebuke of Gov. Jindal's agenda to strip Louisiana public schools of the resources they desperately need," said Randi Weingarten, president of the union. "This victory also makes clear that nobody is above the law."
Tuesday's decision is the second major court ruling on vouchers in the past six weeks. In late March, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld a sweeping voucher system put in place in 2011 by then-Gov. Mitch Daniels.
That program, which offered families up to $4,500 to send their children to schools outside the public system, was deemed constitutional in a unanimous 5-0 decision.
Critics contended that the state was effectively funding religious schools with tax dollars, but the Indiana court determined that it was parents and children who were the real beneficiaries, not parochial institutions.
While Louisiana's program will survive, some voucher proponents are urging Mr. Jindal to keep fighting for his original funding plan. Jeanne Allen, president of the pro-voucher Center for Education Reform, said the matter deserves its day in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
"If the Louisiana constitution, as suggested by the majority court opinion, prohibits parents from directing the course of the funds allocated to educate their child, then the Louisiana constitution needs to be reviewed by the nation's highest court," she said in a statement. "I urge Gov. Jindal to file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and ask for the justices' immediate review of the decision."
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