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Court Rejects Louisiana's Broad Voucher Program

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In a major setback for one the nation's boldest private school choice models, a judge in Louisiana has ruled that the state's new voucher program violates the state's constitution.

Teachers' unions and school boards had challenged the voucher system, one of the farthest-reaching such programs in the country, arguing that it improperly allows money from the state's school funding formula, the Minimum Foundation Program, to be diverted from public to private and religious schools.

On Friday, Judge Timothy Kelley of the state's 19th judicial circuit sided with the legal arguments put forward by opponents of the program in testimony this week, saying the choice model did not meet the requirements of the state's constitution.

"While the court does not dispute the serious nature of these proceedings, nor the impact and potential effects on Louisiana's education systems," Kelley wrote in his ruling, "vital public dollars raised and allocated for public schools through the MFP cannot be lawfully diverted to nonpublic schools or entities."

But the legal battle is far from over. Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who championed the law, immediately vowed to appeal the decision.

"Today's ruling is wrongheaded and a travesty for parents across Louisiana who want nothing more than for their children to have an equal opportunity at receiving a great education," Jindal said in a statement. "That opportunity is a chance that every child deserves and we will continue the fight to give it to them."

Voucher laws are often challenged by opponents on the basis that they break with provisions of state constitutions that prevent public money from supporting nonpublic or religious institutions—provisions known as Blaine Amendments.

Republican-led state legislatures and governors have made a major push over the past few years to launch new voucher programs, and expand existing ones.

But few of those voucher programs match the ambitions of Louisiana's choice system.

The program offers vouchers to families of students stuck in persistently low-scoring schools across the state. But unlike some state voucher systems, which limit eligibility to students from impoverished households, Louisiana's law sets relatively loose eligibility requirements, allowing families with household incomes of about $57,000 to take part.

Louisiana's choice model also creates a system that allows students to select individual courses from a network of public and private school providers, in a variety of locations.

Judge's Kelley's decision was not the only recent legal blow to Louisiana's voucher system. Earlier this week, a federal judge issued an injunction preventing the program from going forward in one of the state's school systems, saying the voucher model conflicted with an existing desegregation order.

About 5,000 students, and more than 100 schools, are already participating in Louisiana's voucher program.

A spokesman for state Superintendent of Education John White told Education Week that students enrolled in the program will continue participating, as the state appeals the case.

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