By MELINDA DESLATTE / Associated 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 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. 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.
More than 4,900 students are enrolled in 117 private schools with taxpayer dollars, in one of the largest voucher programs in the nation.
It 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.
U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle's ruling affected only Tangipahoa Parish. However, it could have implications in other Louisiana public school districts that are under federal desegregation orders.
Jindal, a Republican who was easily re-elected last year, made the voucher program, a tougher teacher tenure policy and other education measures the signature legislation of his young second term.
He pushed them 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."