Testimony wraps up in La. voucher suit

Published 11:32 pm Thursday, November 29, 2012

BATON ROUGE (AP) — As testimony ended Thursday in a legal challenge against Gov. Bobby Jindal’s school voucher program, the mother of a New Orleans student defended the program and said it is offering her son a better education than his siblings got in public school.

After two days of questioning witnesses, lawyers will present final arguments to Judge Tim Kelley on Friday.

It was unclear if Kelley will rule immediately after receiving closing arguments. After Thursday’s witnesses, Kelley backed off his previous statement that he expected to rule this week on whether the statewide voucher program is constitutional. He said he was unsure when he will make his decision.

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“This is a very important case to the children of this state. This is a very important case to the citizens,” the judge said.

Lawyers supporting the voucher program brought in Valerie Evans, whose 11-year-old son Gabriel has attended a Catholic school since 2008 through the New Orleans voucher program that was the predecessor to the newly-created statewide program.

Evans said she would be unable to afford the $4,315-per-year tuition to Resurrection of Our Lord School on her own. She said the school offers her son a better education than public schools that she said didn’t ready her five other children for college.

“That’s not adequate, as a parent to know that I send my child to school every day and they’re not going to be prepared to go to college,” she said.

However, the legal dispute hinges on a more technical question: whether lawmakers complied with the Louisiana Constitution when they financed and passed the program earlier this year.

Two statewide teacher unions and 43 school boards filed lawsuits this summer claiming the voucher program — and other education funding plans that funnel money away from traditional public schools — were improperly paid for through the public school funding formula.

They also argue that lawmakers didn’t follow the constitutional requirements for filing and passing the education programs and their financing.

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.

Much of Thursday’s testimony was from Beth Scioneaux, the Department of Education’s deputy superintendent of management and finance, who has worked on the public school funding formula during her 19 years at the department.

Her testimony offered a discussion of how dollars flow to schools, including changes pushed by the governor that expanded the New Orleans voucher program statewide and shifted its financing into the formula, rather than paying for it separately in the state’s budget.

BESE President Penny Dastugue said she believes the state’s top school board has broad discretion in crafting the education payment formula, called the Minimum Foundation Program, and sought to include the voucher program to give parents more educational options.

“We use the formula as a tool to promote what we believe is our vision for the educational system in Louisiana,” she said. “Historically, we have supported choice programs.”

The education department estimates the voucher program will cost about $25 million for the 2012-13 school year, with more than 4,900 students enrolled in 117 private schools with taxpayer dollars. Voucher slots are 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.