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Judge says he'll rule this week on voucher lawsuit

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MELINDA DESLATTE
Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A Baton Rouge judge said Wednesday that he expects to rule this week on a lawsuit from teacher unions and school boards seeking to shut down Gov. Bobby Jindal's statewide voucher program.

Arguments in the trial were set to continue Thursday, after a more than eight-hour day of testimony filled with complex discussions of the state's $3.4 billion education funding formula and a civics crash course on how legislation moves through the process.

"Hopefully by the end of this week, you'll have a resolution to this one way or the other," Judge Tim Kelley told lawyers as he opened the hearing.

Whatever Kelley rules is expected to be appealed by the losing side.

Two statewide teacher unions and 43 school boards filed a lawsuit claiming the voucher program that uses tax dollars to send children to private schools - and other education funding plans that funnel money away from traditional public schools - are unconstitutional.

They argue it's illegal to pay for the voucher program, home-schooling, online courses, college tuition and independently run charter schools that won't be affiliated with local school systems through the public school funding formula.

They claim lawmakers didn't follow the constitutional requirements for filing and passing the education programs and their funding.

And they say the state's method for paying for the vouchers and other programs has the effect of diverting local tax dollars earmarked by voters in local elections for public schools away from those schools.

"What the Department of Education is doing is they're dipping into the back pockets of the local school systems," said Brian Blackwell, a lawyer representing the Louisiana Association of Educators.

Jindal, Education Superintendent John White and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education say the programs were funded and created in line with the constitution and state law.

"This process was handled perfectly consistent with legislative history, perfectly consistent with Louisiana law," said Jimmy Faircloth, a lawyer representing the state, BESE and the Department of Education.

More than 4,900 students are enrolled in 117 private schools with taxpayer dollars in the voucher program that the education department estimates will cost about $25 million for the 2012-12 school year. It's one of the largest voucher programs in the nation.

Voucher slots are available to students who otherwise would attend public schools graded with a C, D or F by the state.

Lawmakers agreed to the education changes pushed by Jindal in their regular session earlier this year, as a way to improve student achievement. Teachers repeatedly protested at the Louisiana Capitol, but the measures were fast-tracked through the Legislature by Jindal allies.

Testimony on Wednesday came from Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, leader of the House Democratic caucus and a lawyer who was a vocal critic of the governor's education revamp. Edwards raised constitutional concerns about the legislation during the session and again in court.

House Clerk Alfred "Butch" Speer explained his advice to House Speaker Chuck Kleckley that allowed the education spending plans to pass with 51 votes, rather than the House majority of 53 votes. The lawsuit calls that improper, but Speer said the type of legislative instrument used - a resolution, rather than a bill - only required a majority vote from those who were present in the chamber.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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