By KEVIN McGILL / Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Louisiana's Supreme Court has ruled that the funding method for a private school tuition voucher program pushed through the Legislature last year by Gov. Bobby Jindal is unconstitutional.
Tuesday's 6-1 decision upholds a state district court ruling that the Louisiana Constitution forbids using money earmarked for public schools in the state's Minimum Foundation Program to pay for private school tuition.
"After reviewing the record, the legislative instruments, and the constitutional provisions at issue, we agree with the district court that once funds are dedicated to the state's Minimum Foundation Program for public education, the constitution prohibits those funds from being expended on the tuition costs of nonpublic schools and nonpublic entities," said the majority opinion by Justice John Weimer.
The high court also ruled that the MFP formula was not legally approved last year -- in part because it received only 51 votes in the House when 53 were needed.
The Jindal administration has pushed on with the voucher program despite the earlier court ruling. Roughly 8,000 students have been approved for vouchers in the coming school year. It remains unclear how the program will be funded now that use of MFP money has been struck down.
State Education Superintendent John White was not immediately available for comment.
Jindal pledged to continue the program, with an add-on through the regular annual budget process. He'll need backing from lawmakers to do so.
"We're disappointed the funding mechanism was rejected, but we are committed to making sure this program continues and we will fund it through the budget," the governor said in a statement. "The bottom line is that our kids only get one chance to grow up, and we are committed to making sure choice is alive and families can send their children to the school of their choice."
Weimer emphasized in his opinion that the court was not ruling on the effectiveness or value of the voucher program, which makes available state-funded private school tuition to students from low- to moderate-income families who might otherwise be forced to attend a poorly performing public school. The ruling, Weimer said, was strictly limited to constitutional issues.
The majority included Chief Justice Bernette Johnson and Justices Jeffrey Victory, Jeanette Knoll, Marcus Clark and Jefferson Hughes.
Justice Greg Guidry was the only dissenter.
"The majority overlooks the fact that, once a student leaves a district, the district is no longer entitled to the state's share of the MFP for that student, and thus the district's share of the MFP is removed from the MFP allocation to that district," Guidry wrote.