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Louisiana: Voucher Hub, Legal Battleground

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Louisiana's new statewide voucher program is, to backers of the concept, one of the jewels of the nation's private school choice system. It's poised to reach large numbers of students, from a variety of economic circumstances, and even provide children with the option of taking individual courses from a diverse menu of public and private providers.

But a pair of ongoing legal battles could derail the program, in whole or in part, before it gets in full swing.

Earlier this week, a federal judge in Louisiana issue a preliminary injunction to prevent the voucher law from going forward in the Tangipahoa Parish school district, northeast of Baton Rouge, saying that the law violated provisions in a desegregation orders applying to that system.

And this week, a state court has heard a challenge to the program brought by Louisiana's school boards, teachers' unions, and others, which argues that the voucher system violates Louisiana's state constitution.

State Superintendent of Education John White said his staff will continue to implement the program. State officials said recently that about 5,000 students have enrolled in the program, which includes a four-year-old New Orleans-based voucher program, which was expanded statewide this year. The initial pool of more than 10,000 applicants was whittled down based on school eligibility and available spaces, state officials said this week. One hundred and eighteen schools, all but one of which are private, are participating.

White, in an interview, said the ruling in the Tangipahoa Parish applies only to that district, and he noted that the state is appealing that decision. The state schools chief was confident that his side would prevail in the state case brought by school boards and unions.

"We're very optimistic," White said. "We studied the constitution thoroughly before the bills were presented to the legislature."

The Louisiana official described the lawsuit brought by school boards and the unions as an "exercise in cynicism," saying that "real people with real children are waiting in a state of limbo about whether they're going go be able to keep students in these schools."

Joyce Haynes, the president of the 20,000-member Louisiana Association of Educators, responded that the voucher system is draining funding from public schools. She said the union had no desire to disrupt the lives of students or families, but that it also had an obligation to stand up for the "98 percent of the [families] who did not apply for the program."

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