Louisiana has some of the worst public schools in the nation. The state also has the most comprehensive education reform law in the nation, revolving around a voucher program initiated by Gov. Bobby Jindal and passed by the state legislature earlier this year. The program—which also allows for more charter schools and online courses—grants education vouchers to families making an income of up to $57,000, or 250 percent of the federal poverty level, so long as the schools their children are attending receive a “D” or “F” rating according to federal standards. This seems extraordinarily generous, but given that two thirds of Louisiana schools are rated at D or F, extraordinary generosity may be called for.
It didn’t take long for the opposition to respond: two teachers unions, a few dozen local school boards, and the Louisiana School Board Association filed suit immediately. During the last week in November the rulings came down: Judge Timothy Kelly of the 19th Judicial District Court determined that—surprise!—the voucher program was unconstitutional in that it drained money from the public school system in order to support private schools. Earlier that same week, federal Judge Ivan Lamelle in Baton Rouge decided that the program interferes with desegregation in one particular parish. Since vouchers actually allow black children to attend private schools that are predominantly white, the program would seem to be in accord with the spirit if not the letter of desegregation—but opponents of vouchers will go with whatever works.
Public funding for religious schools was not a major element in the two decisions, but the case is seen as a triumph for secularism anyway. Louisiana children may not be able to figure a percentage or read The Origin of Species, but at least they’ll be spared religious indoctrination if the ruling stands. Kyle Plotkin, Gov. Jindal’s communications director, dismissed the argument: “This is a complete red herring attack from defenders of the status quo.” It’s true that parochial schools form the bulk of scholarship opportunities for low-income kids, and yes, Plotkin pointed out, “These schools are known to teach all sorts of scandalous things, for example concerning God raising a man from the dead and an important birthday coming up in a few weeks.” Even so, private school students are expected to pass the same standardized tests as those in the public school, science standards included.
Judge Kelly did not impose an injunction on his ruling, so the statewide program can continue, pending appeal. But Judge Lamelle did impose an injunction in Tangipahoa Parish, and 30 other parishes are rapidly filing their own motions to halt the voucher program. Suddenly, Louisiana is the national petri dish for meaningful education reform. If vouchers can work in a state where the vast majority of public schools are failing, it can work anywhere. On the other hand, if reform is strangled in the cradle there, the future of K-12 education in the United States looks truly bleak.