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Voucher program can continue in Tangipahoa

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A federal appeals court has ruled that the state can continue its private school tuition voucher program in Tangipahoa Parish, despite the local school board's claim the program could affect a decades-old desegregation case.

U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle in November had blocked the voucher program in Tangipahoa. But a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans issued a stay of the judge's order. In a ruling Monday, the appeals court said the state has shown it is likely to win an appeal in which it argues that the judge improperly issued an injunction against the voucher program.

The voucher program, approved last year by the Legislature and strongly pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, allows the state to pay private school tuition for students attending poorly performing public schools and who are from low- to moderate-income families.

Lemelle ruled that the voucher program frustrates the parish school district's ability to comply with its federal desegregation order by depriving the district of needed state funds and disrupting the student population projections on which the order is based.

The state had argued that a federal court cannot interfere with a state's financial decision-making because of state sovereignty granted under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The majority's ruling said that the state was likely to win its argument. The appeals judges noted that the ruling granting a stay would not be binding on the appeals panel that decides the merits.

Still, the majority ruling stated: "A district court is not free to interfere in state spending decisions simply because raising and lowering funding levels may have some incidental impact on a federal decree."

All three members of the appellate panel agreed that Lemelle should have refrained from ruling in the Tangipahoa Parish case, pending the outcome of a separate challenge to the constitutionality of the voucher program's funding mechanism. In that case, state District Judge Tim Kelley ruled Nov. 30 that the voucher program's use of state Minimum Foundation Program funds violates the Louisiana Constitution's dedication of those funds to public education.

Appeals panel Judge James Dennis said he would have sent the Tangipahoa Parish case back to Lemelle to await a final outcome in the state court case, which will be decided by the state Supreme Court. Circuit Judges Edith Jones and Catharina Haynes, however, stayed Lemelle's order pending further appeals court action.

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