Baton Rouge judge rules use of tax dollars to fund certain charter schools is proper _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Attorney Mark Beebe for the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools enters the 19th JDC for a hearing where the case concerning charter school funding was thrown out by State District Judge Wilson Fields. Of the flow of state money to 33 BESE-authorized charter schools, seven of those schools are in EBR, six are in Orleans, three in Lafayette and two in Jefferson. Plaintiffs plan to appeal.

Louisiana education officials are declaring as a “major victory” a state judge’s ruling Friday that they are properly using tax dollars to fund the operations of certain types of charter schools.

Baton Rouge Judge Wilson Fields found the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Louisiana Department of Education didn’t violate the state’s constitution by using Minimum Foundation Program funds for the charter schools.

The Louisiana Association of Educators, which filed the suit challenging the use of public money to support the charters, said it intends to appeal the ruling. The Iberville Parish School Board, which also sued, is also considering an appeal.

In his decision, Fields said Type 2 charter schools approved by BESE are clearly public schools and that BESE and the state Education Department were within their rights to support them with the use of public funds.

Fields had been asked by the LAE and the Iberville Parish School Board to declare unconstitutional the flow of state money to 33 BESE-authorized charter schools, including seven in East Baton Rouge Parish, a half-dozen in Orleans Parish, three in Lafayette Parish and two in Jefferson Parish.

Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said she was elated by Fields’ ruling.

She said it finally puts to rest the notion that charter schools aren’t public schools entitled to the same Minimum Foundation Program money that has traditionally gone to local school districts.

“We are thrilled that the court has sided with the students and families of Type 2 charter schools across the state in making this decision,” Shirley said in a news release. “This is an incredibly important win for not just the 33 Type 2 charters across the state, but those who advocate for and believe in parent choice when it comes to public education.”

She added, “If the unions and the Iberville school system had their way, only those schools run by the outdated district systems would receive MFP funds.”

State Education Superintendent John White also issued a prepared statement talking about the significance of Fields’ ruling in the debate over charter schools.

“The ruling states unequivocally that charter schools are public schools,” White said. “They exist among many options to which all parents, no matter the size of their paycheck, deserve access.”

Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said her organization intends to appeal Field’s ruling. And the Iberville board appeared likely to do the same.

“Of course we’re disappointed, but we still believe in our suit,” Meaux said outside the courtroom Friday. “Even though the judge gave it careful consideration, we think we still have good grounds for an appeal.”

Iberville School Board attorney Mike Fontham expressed the same disappointment but said he would have to confer with the board first regarding an appeal.

“There is a good likelihood they will decide to go forward,” Fontham said in an email. “The judge did not issue any written reasons except to say he was adopting the briefs of all our opponents, so an appellate court would likely take a fresh look at the issue.”

Attorneys for both plaintiffs have said previously the case is not about liking or disliking charter schools but about how they are funded through the state’s Minimum Foundation Program.

Charter schools are public schools that are run by nongovernmental boards. They operate without much of the red tape associated with traditional public schools.

The LAE argues BESE-authorized charter schools, and those approved by local groups, don’t qualify as “city and parish school systems” that the state constitution requires be provided with MFP funds.

During a three-day bench trial in March, the School Board’s attorney argued the state is diverting money away from the Iberville school system and transferring it to charter schools.

An Iberville lawsuit against the state alleged that $4 million in state aid was unfairly diverted from the Iberville system to a newly opened charter school in Plaquemine called Iberville Charter Academy and another charter school in Baton Rouge named South Baton Rouge Charter Academy.

The LAE suit contended the state improperly spends $60 million a year for two types of charter schools that are not entitled to the state aid from the MFP.

In his ruling from the bench Friday, Fields referenced Article 8, Section 13 of the state’s constitution, which mandates BESE and the state Legislature annually adopt a formula that ensures public funds are divided “equitably, not equally” to public schools through the Minimum Foundation Program.

Fields also highlighted that the constitution says MFP funds to public schools must also include contributions from every city and parish school system.

“All parties agree Type 2 charter schools are public entities,” Fields said from the bench. “The charter schools cannot levy taxes to support their schools. (The formula) provides contributions from the city and parish.”

Jay O’Brien, an attorney for the state Department of Education, said outside the courtroom Friday that Fields’ ruling recognizes the state’s responsibility to fund all public schools whether they are traditional or charter schools.

“This ruling allows us to continue in the state with a forward-looking education policy,” he said.

Jennette Franklin, a parent with two children attending Louisiana Virtual Academy, said Friday’s ruling gives children an equal opportunity at education in the state.

“We need these tax dollars to invest in our children,” she said outside the courtroom. “All children don’t learn the same, so I’m happy to know our children will still have options.”

There are some 13,000 students in the 33 charter schools involved in the case, the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools has said.

Nearly 59,000 students attend 117 charter schools statewide, according to a recent report by the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter @tjonesreporter.