Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Louisiana Supreme Court Strikes State School Voucher Program

The Louisiana Supreme Court today ruled that the state's school voucher program violates the state constitution.  In particular, the court ruled that the voucher program tapped the constitutionally protected per pupil state fund for public education and that the legislature passed the funding mechanism in violation of state constitutional procedural requirements.

The ruling deals a fatal blow to this funding mechanism for the state's voucher program.  But the state could probably create a voucher program and fund it through a different budget mechanism (e.g., a regular line item, instead of the state's specifically reserved per pupil fund for public education).  The ruling thus puts the ball back in the governor's and legislature's court--to create a new mechanism for the voucher program, and to come up with the money to fund it.  (Here's Governor Jindal's statement in reaction to the ruling.)  Even if this happens, the ruling underscores the constitutional protection for separately allocated per pupil fund for public education in the state.

The ruling, Louisiana Federation of Teachers v. State of Lousiana, arose out of state constitutional challenges to the state's recently encacted voucher program.  That program diverted state funds separately allocated for public education (under the "minimum foundation program," or MFP) to private schools "on behalf of each student awarded a scholarship" under the voucher program.  The program came in two parts: Act 2 created the voucher program; and Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 99 approved the MFP line-item but diverted MFP funds to support Act 2 vouchers.

The court ruled that the provisions violated Louisiana Constitution Article VIII, Sec. 13(B), which requires the legislature to "fully fund the current cost to the state" of "a minimum foundation program of education in all public elementary and secondary schools," and the "funds appropriated shall be equitably allocated to parish and city school systems."  According to the court, Section 13(B) requires that MFP funds be used to support public education only, even if some of the students used to calculate the MFP base elected to go to private school.  In short, when Section 13(B) says that MFP funds "shall" be allocated to public schools, it means they shall be allocated only to public schools--and can't be diverted to private schools.

The court also ruled that SCR 99 violated Article III, Sec. 2(A)(3)(a), which says (in relevant part):

No new matter intended to have the effect of law shall be introduced or received by either house after six o'clock in the evening of the twenty-third calendar day.

After some analysis of "the effect of law," the court concluded that SCR 99 violated this provision, because it was introduced in both houses after the twenty-third calendar day of the regular session.  (The court ruled that it also violated a related provision, requiring a 2/3 vote after a certain date.  Ultimately the court noted that in the House it didn't even get a "majority of the members elected," as required by Article III, Sec. 15(G).)  

At the same time, the court ruled that the voucher package didn't violate the constitution's "one-object" rule, requiring each piece of legislation to deal with just one object.  The court said the legislation was indeed quite lengthy, but still it all went to the same general object--promoting school choice.

SDS

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