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MELINDA DESLATTEAssociated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Gov. Bobby Jindal's voucher program that uses tax dollars to send students to private schools was ruled unconstitutional Friday by a state judge who said it's improperly funded through the public school financing formula.
Judge Tim Kelley sided with arguments presented by teacher unions and school boards seeking to shut down the voucher program and other changes that would funnel more money away from traditional public schools.
The governor, who made the voucher program and other educational changes a signature of his early second term, said the state will appeal the decision.
Kelley said the method the Jindal administration, state education leaders and lawmakers used to pay for the voucher program violates state constitutional provisions governing the annual education funding formula, called the Minimum Foundation Program or MFP.
"The MFP was set up for students attending public elementary and secondary schools and was never meant to be diverted to private educational providers," Kelley wrote in a 39-page ruling.
Kelley, a Republican, didn't rule on whether it's appropriate to spend state tax dollars on private school tuition, leaving open the possibility for lawmakers to pay for the program in a different way. His decision was narrowly focused on the financing mechanism chosen by the GOP governor and approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and lawmakers.
Jindal called the judge's ruling "a travesty for parents across Louisiana who want nothing more than for their children to have an equal opportunity at receiving a great education."
"On behalf of the citizens that cast their votes for reform, the parents who want more choices, and the kids who deserve a chance, we will appeal today's decision, and I'm confident we will prevail," the governor said in a statement.
Bill Maurer, a lawyer representing two parents with children in the voucher program and two pro-voucher groups, said he didn't expect Kelley's ruling to immediately force voucher students from their private schools, because Kelley didn't issue an injunction against the program.
"This ruling changes nothing for the students currently in the program. All along, we expected this to be decided by the Louisiana Supreme Court," Jindal said.
More than 4,900 students are enrolled in 117 private schools with taxpayer dollars, in one of the largest voucher programs in the nation.
Tirany Howard, who has three children enrolled in a Baton Rouge private school through the voucher program, said she was disappointed by the judge's ruling but was trying to remain hopeful that his decision will be overturned.
"I really don't want to move them and disrupt them in the middle of the school year. That to me is emotionally traumatizing for them," Howard said outside the courthouse.
Howard said she couldn't afford to send her children to Hosanna Christian Academy without assistance. Without the state covering tuition, she said her children would end up in a public school deemed failing by the state.
"I didn't see enough effort for me to say that it was OK for my children to go there," Howard said.
Friday's ruling was the second legal setback this week for the voucher program that Jindal pushed through the Legislature this year as part of a sweeping education system overhaul.
On Monday, a federal judge halted the voucher program in one Louisiana parish, saying it conflicts with a decades-old desegregation case. That ruling in Tangipahoa Parish could have implications in other Louisiana public school districts that are under federal desegregation orders.
Jindal pushed the education changes through in the early weeks of the spring legislative session during marathon committee meetings and floor debates that drew vehement protests from teacher unions and others in the state's education establishment.
"The political rhetoric of 'pro-reform' vs. 'anti-reform' hopefully is over," said Scott Richard, head of the Louisiana School Boards Association. "We're not anti-reform. We just want the political shell game to stop with public funding for public education."
The education department estimated vouchers will cost about $25 million for the 2012-13 school year, with the taxpayer-financed tuition available to students from low- to moderate-income families who otherwise would attend public schools graded with a C, D or F by the state.
Two statewide education unions, dozens of their local affiliates and 43 school boards filed lawsuits that were combined into one trial, held over three days this week.
Kelley ruled the financing plan unconstitutional in two ways: by sending dollars to private schools and by diverting local tax dollars away from the public school districts for which they were approved.
The judge also ruled it was unconstitutional for two other programs pushed by Jindal to be financed through the public school funding formula. One program would provide college tuition money to high school students who graduate early. The other would allow students to take online and apprenticeship-type courses run by private companies and others outside of the public school system.
Both were still in planning stages and hadn't started.
Attorneys defending the programs said BESE has broad constitutional authority to craft education policy and to devise spending plans. Lawyer Jimmy Faircloth said the Louisiana Constitution doesn't specifically prohibit BESE from funding programs beyond public schools.
"No one can find anything that prohibits BESE from doing what it's doing in this case," Faircloth said.
If Kelley's decision is upheld, lawmakers could seek to finance the voucher program with a line-item in the state's annual budget - the way a previous, New Orleans-only voucher program had been funded by the state since 2008 without a court challenge.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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