In what can only be described as a major victory for those in Louisiana who champion and value the fundamental right to public education, today, Judge Tim Kelley ruled that Governor Bobby Jindal’s attempt to divert taxpayer dollars to prop up private religious schools, under the pretense of “school choice,” violates the Louisiana State Constitution. Although Judge Kelley did not issue an injunction against the program and although an appeal to the Louisiana State Supreme Court had already been a foregone conclusion, Judge Kelley’s 39-page decision represents the most significant ruling to date on the constitutionality of diverting Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) dollars to fund Jindal’s experimental and controversial “school voucher program.” While Governor Jindal and his allies decried and denounced the decision, vowing to appeal, they have also, more quietly, attempted to consider alternate funding solutions, the most obvious of which would require a direct appropriation from the State’s General Fund.
Essentially, in order to fund what some have described as the largest school voucher program in the nation’s history, Governor Jindal had attempted to reallocate money collected under the Minimum Foundation Program, a program that is Constitutionally defined specifically for public schools. The MFP employs a complex formula to determine the proper and fair way to equitably distribute revenue and resources generated on the district and state-level to public schools across the State.
Even if you are a staunch supporter of so-called “school choice” and a defender of Jindal’s plans, you’d be hard-pressed to find a legal and constitutional way to walk around the plain language meaning of the Minimum Foundation Program: It was conceived and has been employed as a way of better ensuring basic equality among our public schools. It was never intended or anticipated to become a vehicle by which taxpayer dollars could be reassigned from public institutions and given, instead, to over 100 voucher schools, many of whom lack credentialed teachers and some of whom have already attracted national media coverage for their adoptions of a radically religious right education: Evolution is fake; fossils are God (or Satan?) tempting our faith; the Loch Ness monster is training right now with Michael Phelps; when Noah built the ark, he rounded up a series of 10 ton dinosaurs.
Before I say anything else, I should first admit: Wow. I am pleasantly surprised by Judge Kelley. He’d given every indication that he had been leaning toward Jindal’s arguments, and, as I recently pointed out, it was impossible, at least for any thinking person, to read Judge Kelley’s statements on Monday, then discover that Jindal’s own lawyer in this case had donated $1,000 to his election only a month prior, and think that the Judge hadn’t already made up his mind. It seemed like a foregone conclusion. But guess what? The next day, Judge Kelley immediately corrected his previous statements, dialing them back substantially and now saying, instead, that he could not be sure when he’d release his opinion.
Less than 24 hours later, Kelley ruled that Jindal’s voucher program is unconstitutional. Period. I’ve read some commentary that suggests vouchers weren’t “unconstitutional,” only the way vouchers were funded. Sorry guys, same difference. This program was ruled unconstitutional, and no amount of rhetorical nitpicking works.
I was completely wrong about Judge Tim Kelley. His opinion was cogent, on-point, and objective. “It’s an incredible first step,” writes education activist Zack Kopplin, “Judge Kelley deserves praise and I hope the Supreme Court makes the right decision.”
That is true, but remember, this was just Round One.