Unfunded, Unaccountable, and Unconstitutional: John White’s Scheme to Push Louisiana’s Voucher Program

Less than three months after Judge Tim Kelley ruled that Louisiana’s school voucher program was unconstitutionally funded and only a month before oral arguments begin in the Louisiana State Supreme Court, Superintendent of Education John White announced that his Department had added nineteen additional schools to the program and was now accepting applications for next year.

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Consider this: Last year, John White and the Department of Education waited until mid-summer before opening up the application process for the controversial program. By green-lighting applications now, Superintendent White is cynically and unabashedly attempting to pressure the Louisiana State Supreme Court, the Louisiana legislature, and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. It’s an unnecessarily provocative and preemptive strike, a blatantly political scheme to undermine the autonomy and authority of the Court and establish and expand a class of victims, those students and parents who applied for vouchers that were never legal or constitutional in the first place.

And if you somehow doubt that Superintendent White would so cynically exploit parents and children to help advance his and Governor Jindal’s political agenda, then also consider this: He is opening up applications for next year before revealing which schools will be kicked out of the program for academic failure. Quoting from The Times-Picayune:

The state Supreme Court is set to hear arguments the week of March 18 in a case that will determine whether Gov. Bobby Jindal must find a new way to fund the Louisiana Scholarship Program. And parents may find that some schools will initially enroll students only to turn them away later. The reason: The key measure for determining whether schools may take more voucher students — an academic performance score similar to the one given to public schools statewide — won’t be ready until May even though the voucher lottery will take place in April.

State Education Superintendent John White defends the decision to go ahead with a second year of the program. The best way to serve students is to make every public school great, he told reporters Wednesday. But until that has been achieved, “It is our moral obligation to provide them with every alternative,” he said.

You got that? Superintendent John White is morally obligated to allow students to apply for vouchers that will likely be held unconstitutional (and therefore unfunded) for schools that may or may not be failing.

Apply now; ask questions later.

Incidentally, Superintendent White has approved at least one other private school that promotes Biblical creationism as legitimate science, Alfred Booker Junior Academy, bringing the total number of identified creationist voucher schools to twenty-one. The inclusion of Alfred Booker Junior Academy also demonstrates how incredibly unserious and reckless John White’s leadership continues to be. After being nationally exposed and embarrassed by Zack Kopplin for his lackadaisical and borderline negligent standards, John White approved a school that teaches mathematics like this:

Mathematics:

(Grades K-5) Go Math! Common Core curriculum was developed by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to point our students to the Creator. From Genesis to Revelation, God used math in awesome ways. Creation was completed in six (6) days and commemorated on the seventh. Elisha was able to multiply the widow’s oil and Peter was encouraged to forgive “seventy times seven.”

Our taxpayer dollars at work.

Superintendent White also claimed that all schools approved under the voucher program must be accredited, and when 52 unaccredited schools applied for funding, he rejected only two.

But here’s the real story, something that I hope the mainstream media will break wide open: According to well-placed sources involved in education policy in Louisiana, Superintendent White, Governor Jindal, and their allies on BESE are working on a contingency plan in the event that the voucher program is ruled unconstitutional.

It’s a simple plan, actually, but to understand it, you need to know three things:

First, Louisiana’s voucher program is currently being funded through the State’s Minimum Foundation Program.

Second, the Minimum Foundation Program, according to the Louisiana State Constitution, is strictly intended to finance public education. (That’s the heart of the legal challenge, and if you can read the English language, it’s pretty open and shut).

And third, if the State Supreme Court affirms and upholds Judge Tim Kelley’s well-considered ruling that the voucher program is unconstitutionally funded, then vouchers must instead be funded through the State’s General Fund, which has been decimated under Governor Jindal’s leadership.

The solution to this, if the rumors are to be trusted and believed, is that Superintendent White and Governor Jindal convince the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) to change the formula used for calculating MFP funding. Hypothetically, if BESE can shave off $80M- $120M a year from MFP, then the State could then realize those savings in its General Fund and assign the money to the voucher program.

For what it’s worth, I think the scheme is inherently and blatantly unconstitutional, but I’m not at all surprised that the concept is being bandied about as a contingency plan. The Louisiana State Constitution is clear, however. Quoting (bold mine):

Minimum Foundation Program. The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or its successor, shall annually develop and adopt a formula which shall be used to determine the cost of a minimum foundation program of education in all public elementary and secondary schools as well as to equitably allocate the funds to parish and city school systems. Such formula shall provide for a contribution by every city and parish school system. Prior to approval of the formula by the legislature, the legislature may return the formula adopted by the board to the board and may recommend to the board an amended formula for consideration by the board and submission to the legislature for approval. The legislature shall annually appropriate funds sufficient to fully fund the current cost to the state of such a program as determined by applying the approved formula in order to insure a minimum foundation of education in all public elementary and secondary schools. Neither the governor nor the legislature may reduce such appropriation, except that the governor may reduce such appropriation using means provided in the act containing the appropriation provided that any such reduction is consented to in writing by two-thirds of the elected members of each house of the legislature. The funds appropriated shall be equitably allocated to parish and city school systems according to the formula as adopted by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or its successor, and approved by the legislature prior to making the appropriation. Whenever the legislature fails to approve the formula most recently adopted by the board, or its successor, the last formula adopted by the board, or its successor, and approved by the legislature shall be used for the determination of the cost of the minimum foundation program and for the allocation of funds appropriated.

La. Const. art. VIII, § 13

Notably, the only way the Governor can legally reduce the MFP appropriation is through a two-thirds vote of the legislature, something that he’d be unlikely to accomplish. But if Jindal’s hand-selected and well-funded BESE members somehow, magically determine to conveniently reduce the MFP appropriation by the exact amount needed to finance the voucher program, it becomes a little murkier.

Actually, “murkier” is a polite word; if this is, in fact, Jindal’s and White’s contingency plan– working around a potential defeat in the Louisiana State Supreme Court by defunding the very program upon which they had relied– then it would be nothing more than open Corruption (with a capital C).

In the meantime, one can only hope Superintendent White will wise up; after all, it’s his moral obligation.