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Union Fights State Effort to Implement La. Voucher Program

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It's been months since Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law a measure designed to greatly expand students' access to private school vouchers in his state. Teachers' unions loathed the law then, and this week opponents of the policy took a controversial new step to escalate the fight over it.

The Louisiana Association of Educators, one of the state's major unions, had its lawyers send a letter to private schools around the state warning them not to participate in the program until legal challenges have been settled—or face legal action. The LAE and other organizations have argued that the voucher model violates the state's constitution by directing public funds to non-public schools.

The LAE's action angered state officials, who accused the union of trying to bully private schools. State Superintendent of Education John White, who backs the voucher program, called the LAE's letter "shameful" in a statement issued jointly with state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President Penny Dastugue.

"Trying to prevent people from doing what's right for their children is bad enough," White said. "Doing it with no basis whatsoever is disgraceful. School starts in three weeks. It's time to put politics behind us and start focusing on our kids."

Added Dastugue: "We encourage participating schools to ignore the LAE's absurd actions and to move forward with providing children the opportunity their parents have decided is best for them."

Earlier this week, backers of the voucher program scored a legal victory when the state's First Circuit Court of Appeals turned down a petition for an injunction filed by opponents seeking to block the law from going forward. Brian F. Blackwell, a lawyer representing the LAE, said in an e-mail to Ed Week that the union would appeal that decision.

The letter to private schools, written by Blackwell's law firm on behalf of the LAE and other opponents of the law, briefly sums up the union's constitutional beef and says that "our clients have directed us to take whatever means necessary to prevent the unconstitutional transfer of public monies" for vouchers. The letter says that if the law firm does not receive a signed copy of a letter from the private schools by 4 p.m. today—apparently offering an assurance that they will not take part in the program—"we will have no alternative other than to institute litigation" aimed at stopping the schools from doing so.

The LAE's president, Joyce Haynes, later released a statement saying the letter was "in no way an attempt at intimidation." Blackwell, the LAE's attorney, said the goal was to prevent schools from having to pay back state money if the courts strike down the law. He also said the private schools can accept voucher students "on a contigency basis."

"The letter was our way of ensuring that Louisiana students don't have to pay for the unconstitutional maneuvers made by Gov. Jindal and Superintendent White," Haynes said in a statement.

No word yet on how the union letter—and state officials' denunciation of it—has swayed private schools' thinking on going after voucher students.

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