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Jindal's Louisiana Vouchers Face Growing Legal Backlash

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State educational reforms signed into law by Jindal in April would allow low- and middle-income students in struggling public schools to receive vouchers to attend private schools. Similar programs have been utilized in about a dozen other states and have long been part of a broader educational reform favored by conservative groups.

In a lawsuit claiming that the bill violates the state's constitution, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators are seeking to have the reforms struck down.

The Louisiana School Boards Association also joined 34 other school boards late last week in filing a similar lawsuit, saying that the imposition "put[s] public school systems in more peril than ever." Preliminary hearings are set for July 10.

The voucher program Louisiana is slated to employ is much broader than other states. The vouchers, worth up to $8,800 annually, will be offered to students of families making under $60,000 and who are currently enrolled in a public school in which at least 25 percent of students test below grade level. So far, about 6,000 students have applied to the approximately 5,000 slots currently available in the approved private schools across the state, according to The Shreveport Times.

The following school year, however, will see the implementation of "mini-vouchers," in which all students at the aforementioned schools, regardless of their family's income, will be eligible for a $1,300 stipend to pay for private-school classes and apprenticeships. The voucher system would thus open up to nearly half of the state's public school students. Since the public schools will lose commensurate funding every time one of their students opt for a voucher, the state's public school system could by some estimates lose up to $3.3 billion annually once the program is fully implemented.

With 70.9 percent of its students receiving high school degrees, Louisiana has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country. But, per a statement from the governor's office, last year's rate was 3.7 percent higher than it was in 2010. It also represents an 11.6 percent improvement since 2002, which has outpaced the national average. As such, some see this reform as mere political maneuvering, rather than than the necessary educational restructuring that Jindal claims to be proposing. In an interview with AlterNet, David Kirshner, professor of educational theory, policy and practice at Louisiana State University, said that the program will lead to the "inevitable degradation of the public system."

There are also concerns about how the program might meld government and religion. Of the 120 private schools approved by the state government, the majority are Christian-based and monitored far more loosely by the state than their public counterparts, according to Reuters. The New Living Word school, which is willing to accept 314 vouchers -- the highest number in the state -- has no library, and students watch instructional DVDs that filter lessons through Biblical verses. The Eternity Christian Academy, likewise, does not teach evolution, and is one of a handful of schools that employ the Accelerated Christian Education program, which reportedly claims, among other things, that Japanese whalers caught a dinosaur, and that the Loch Ness Monster is real.

The Islamic School of Greater New Orleans initially offered to accept as many as 38 voucher students, but pulled their request after Rep. Kenneth Havard, R-Jackson, said that he objected to any funding of "Islamic teaching" and that he "[wouldn't] go back home and explain to my people that I supported this." Offered Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin: "It'll be the Church of Scientology next year."

The lawsuits, when combined with the types of schools the government will now be funding, have tarred the proposed reforms before they've taken effect. After the ISGNO had pulled its request, Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, said, "The system works."