AFT affiliates challenge Louisiana education initiatives

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The Louisiana Federation of Teachers filed two lawsuits on June 7 challenging the legality of Gov. Bobby Jindal's signature education initiatives, which allow public funds to be used to pay for private and religious school vouchers, and which make sweeping changes in the way schools are operated and in how teachers are hired, fired and paid.

"In the haste to steamroll these bills through the Legislature, the constitution was often treated like little more than a list of inconvenient suggestions," LFT president Steve Monaghan says. "The passage of these laws has elevated legal challenges to acts of civic responsibility."

Act 1 changes tenure laws, hiring and firing policies, and compensation. It removes teacher employment from the jurisdiction of school boards, and redefines the role of local school superintendents.

Act 2 radically redefines public education by expanding the state's voucher program, which pays tuition to private and religious schools, taking the funding for vouchers from public education's Minimum Foundation Program (MFP). The MFP is a formula for funding public elementary and secondary schools; the law changed the formula to include private and religious schools, virtual online schools, corporate and industry providers, and even higher education institutions. It also includes an entirely new category of charter schools to be created by unelected, largely unaccountable bodies that have the same authority as local school boards.

Both lawsuits charge that the Legislature violated the constitution by bundling what should have been a number of different bills into just two instruments. The state constitution clearly states that every bill "shall be confined to one object."

"By cramming so many objectives into just two bills, public comment and debate were stifled," Monaghan says. "Legislators were given little information about the bills, and appeared intimidated into passing them without adequate debate and oversight."

The LFT's objections to Act 2 extend to the adoption of the Minimum Foundation Program. The resolution barely passed the House of Representatives on a 51-49 vote. The speaker of the House ruled that the usual majority vote of 53 members wasn't needed. "Even the speaker made a mockery of the rule of law when he said there is a 'history that the House has not always followed constitutional procedure on this issue,' " Monaghan says.

The LFT's specific challenges to Act 1's bundled objectives, each of which should have been a separate bill, include:

  • It changes the contractual relationship between local school boards and their superintendents.
  • It strips the authority to hire and fire teachers from school boards and gives it to superintendents.
  • It gives superintendents sole authority to determine reduction-in-force policies.
  • It creates a new section of law regarding how teacher salaries will be determined.
  • It changes due process rights that teachers have under law.

The LFT's allegations about Act 2 go deeper than the inappropriate bundling of objectives. Included in the suit are charges that the act:

  • Unconstitutionally diverts MFP funds from public schools to private and religious institutions, citing Article VIII, Section 13(b), which states that the formula "shall be used to determine the cost of a minimum foundation program of education in all public elementary and secondary schools as well as to equitably allocate the funds to parish and city school systems";
  • Diverts funds approved by local voters for specific purposes to private, religious and charter schools that were not included in the ballot language; and
  • Was adopted in violation of the Louisiana Constitution, which specifies the number of votes an item must receive in order to be appropriately adopted by the Legislature.

"For those who may once more attempt to hide their disrespect for the rule of law and the people's constitution behind a façade of faceless children, we would assert that it is out of love and respect for the fate of every child that we must challenge these unconstitutional acts," Monaghan says.

The state of Louisiana is named as defendant in the lawsuit against Act 1, while the defendant in the suit challenging Act 2 is the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. [Louisiana Federation of Teachers press release]

June 11, 2012