School stock

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling Tuesday should change the way Louisiana provides aid for students from low-income families to attend private schools, the president of the state's top voucher advocacy group said.

"This is a game changer," said Ann Duplessis, president of the Louisiana Federation for Children and a member of the group's national board.

The nation's top court, in a Montana case, ruled 5-4 that it is unconstitutional to ban state aid to parochial schools. The panel concluded that such bans run afoul of the First Amendment.

The issue has been a controversial topic in Louisiana, which provides state aid for students from low-income families attending troubled public schools to attend private or parochial schools. The assistance is called vouchers.

About 6,500 children get the aid, which stems from a 2012 state law pushed by then Gov. Bobby Jindal.

That 2012 law required vouchers to be financed through the same fund that pays for public school operations – the Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP.

Teacher unions and others challenged the 2012 law, and the state Supreme Court ruled 6-1 in 2013 that it was unconstitutional for the state to use MFP dollars to finance tuition at private and parochial schools.

The annual aid – about $43 million – is now done as a separate item in the state operating budget.

Duplessis, a former state senator from New Orleans, said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling could make the annual aid more reliable by putting it back in the MFP. "This is an absolutely wonderful decision for families, for educators, for the schools who want some assurance they are not going to be subject to the whims of the Legislature," she said.

Heather Cushman, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, one of the state's two teacher unions, disagreed.

"Louisiana permits religious schools to partake in our scholarship and voucher programs at the same level as secular schools," Cushman said in an email. "There is nothing in the decision that would indicate that the state has to give more money to voucher programs or raid the MFP to fund private schools."

Backers contend vouchers give students trapped in failing public schools a way out.

Teacher unions and others have long argued that the state aid, whatever the source, robs public schools of badly-needed state dollars.

They also noted that some studies have questioned the effectiveness of vouchers, including a 2017 report by the Education Research Alliance in New Orleans that said voucher students failed to stand out from public school students in math and English.

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said Tuesday that, while he has not studied the opinion, it appears to be a plus for families.

"I definitely tend to believe it is a victory for the advocates of school choice," Brumley said. "And I think any time we are able to give families an option in their education that is a positive."

A spokeswoman for the Louisiana Association of Educators, the other teachers union, said Tuesday officials of the group are reviewing the ruling.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.