NEW ORLEANS — The funding method for a private school tuition voucher program pushed through the Legislature last year by Gov. Bobby Jindal is unconstitutional, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a 6-1 opinion that raised questions about how the program will be funded in the coming year.
It also raised questions about schools that accepted voucher students last year. An attorney for the Louisiana Association of Educators said the teacher union will ask Jindal to get back millions of dollars disbursed to private and parochial schools in the last year through the voucher program. And, he said the union will go to court if Jindal refuses.
The program makes state-paid tuition available to students from low- to moderate-income families who would otherwise have to attend a poorly performing public school.
Jindal issued a statement saying the program would continue with an add-on through the regular annual budget process. He'll need backing from lawmakers to accomplish that.
"We're disappointed the funding mechanism was rejected, but we are committed to making sure this program continues and we will fund it through the budget," the governor said in a statement.
His statement added: "The bottom line is that our kids only get one chance to grow up, and we are committed to making sure choice is alive and families can send their children to the school of their choice."
Tuesday's Supreme Court decision upholds a state district court ruling that the Louisiana Constitution forbids using money earmarked for public schools in the state's Minimum Foundation Program to pay for private school tuition.
Justice John Weimer emphasized in the opinion that the court was not ruling on the effectiveness or value of the voucher program. The ruling, Weimer said, was strictly limited to constitutional issues.
"After reviewing the record, the legislative instruments, and the constitutional provisions at issue, we agree with the district court that once funds are dedicated to the state's Minimum Foundation Program for public education, the constitution prohibits those funds from being expended on the tuition costs of nonpublic schools and nonpublic entities," Weimer wrote.
The high court also ruled that the MFP formula was not legally approved last year — in part because it received only 51 votes in the House when 53 were needed.
The implication of that part of the ruling was unclear as the state's current budget year draws nearer to its June 30 end. The president of another major teacher union in the state, Steve Monaghan of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said it could prompt some local school districts whose funding went down in the last MFP allocation to file individual lawsuits.
The Jindal administration has pushed on with the voucher program despite the earlier court ruling. Roughly 8,000 students have been approved for vouchers in the coming school year. It remains unclear how the program will be funded now that use of MFP money has been struck down.
"On the most important aspect of the law, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of families. The Scholarship Program will continue, and thousands of Louisiana families will continue to have the final say in where to send their children to school," said state Superintendent of Education John White, a voucher supporter.
The court's majority in the case included Chief Justice Bernette Johnson and Justices Jeffrey Victory, Jeanette Knoll, Marcus Clark and Jefferson Hughes.
Justice Greg Guidry was the only dissenter.
"The majority overlooks the fact that, once a student leaves a district, the district is no longer entitled to the state's share of the MFP for that student, and thus the district's share of the MFP is removed from the MFP allocation to that district," Guidry wrote.
Monaghan and Joyce Haynes of the LAE joined local level public school administrators who had fought the voucher program in court to praise the ruling during a news conference outside the Capitol.
"The supreme court was very clear in their decision making that the instruments were null and void from the outset," said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Board Association. "We think that's a very clear and succinct message that there needs to be more stakeholder input from all the public education stakeholders in the state in regards to crafting legislation that affects all of our students."
"The governor right now is crafting his response, we would hope that his response would be, 'Time for combat is over, time for collaboration with our stakeholders should begin,'" said Monaghan.
Voucher supporters took heart that the court struck the funding and not the program itself.
"While the Supreme Court did rule against the funding source, we believe the ruling on the program itself validates what we've been saying all along — this program is lawful. We are confident that the program will remain intact in Louisiana," Kenneth Campbell, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, said in a news release.
Associated Press reporters Melinda Deslatte and Littice Bacon-Blood contributed to this story from Baton Rouge.