Louisiana vouchers need more to grow

The Louisiana Supreme Court may have ruled that Governor Bobby Jindal and the Legislature cannot fund the state’s voucher program with the same “minimum foundation” constitutionally reserved for public schools, but that doesn’t mean that Jindal has to scrap his effort. Just after the 6–1 decision Tuesday, Jindal pledged to keep the program alive by funding it elsewhere in the budget. About 8,000 children had already been promised vouchers for next year.

But it’s hard to imagine how the program could grow much more than that if the governor has to find budgetary leftovers to fund it. Every year since 2008, the governor and lawmakers have had to scratch and claw for funds to bankroll the New Orleans voucher program, which was the precursor to the statewide voucher effort. In 2011, the New Orleans program got $9 million from the general budget, which amounted to less than $5,000 per student then.

By contrast, Louisiana’s K–12 public schools received $3.4 billion from the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) in 2011, which came to an average $8,763 per pupil.

And that helps explain why Jindal sought funding for the statewide voucher program through the MFP. The governor can’t fund reform adequately if he has to seek out dollars—and struggle annually with state lawmakers—that don’t go into the entitlement spending for school boards.

Moreover, he shouldn’t have to. Students receiving the Louisiana voucher have to take the same standardized tests as those administered at public schools, and the schools they attend can be ejected from the program if they consistently show poor performance—just like charter schools.

That leaves minor differences between the public and voucher-bearing private sectors of education in the Bayou State. Arguably, the framers of the 1974 Louisiana Constitution would have agreed. It should be noted that while these were the framers that secured the MFP for public schools, they also removed from their Constitution the Blaine Amendment, which prohibited the direct public funding of “sectarian” education and which currently exist in thirty-eight other states.

In 1974, public education was organized traditionally, and the framers couldn’t possibly see that all that would be in flux today. In Louisiana, what is “public” includes a largely charter school system in New Orleans, four publicly funded private school–choice programs, a recovery school district, and online charter schools.

But the Legislature and the citizens of Louisiana can see that clearly. And this court decision should be the catalyst for them to amend the Constitution to make funding available for a statewide and publicly accountable voucher program.

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