BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called it “wrong-headed” and a “travesty” that a state judge ruled Nov. 30 that a voucher program passed by the Legislature last spring is unconstitutional.

State District Judge Tim Kelley said the state cannot use funds set aside for public education to pay for children in failing schools to attend nonpublic schools.

The Legislature passed the program – known formally as the Louisiana Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program – during its 2012 legislative session, held from March to June.

Kelley’s decision is a “travesty for parents across Louisiana who want nothing more than for their children to have an equal opportunity at receiving a great education,” Jindal said.

“That opportunity is a chance that every child deserves, and we will continue the fight to give it to them,” he continued. “The opinion sadly ignores the rights of families who do not have the means necessary to escape failing schools. This ruling changes nothing for the students currently in the program. All along, we expected this to be decided by the Louisiana Supreme Court.”

Jindal vowed to appeal the ruling handed down by Kelley in a 39-page decision following a three-day trial. The suit was filed by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana School Boards Association, and 143 local school boards against the state Department of Education and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Currently, more than 4,900 Louisiana children attending 117 nonpublic schools receive state-issued tuition vouchers.

Since Kelley did not issue an immediate injunction to stop the voucher program, students will be able to continue attending the schools they are attending. The program has been successful in Catholic schools throughout Louisiana, providing a quality education to thousands of students who would otherwise be attending failing schools.

“The superintendents are unhappy with the ruling and are very concerned about the students,” said Danny Loar, director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, the public policy arm of the bishops.

He told The Catholic Commentator, newspaper of the Baton Rouge Diocese, that he has learned the case is being expedited to the state Supreme Court so there could be a decision this spring.

The annual education appropriation, which is calculated under a formula known as the Minimum Foundation Program, was intended exclusively for public schools. Diverting these funds to other schools is in violation of the state constitution, Kelley said.

In its court argument, the state argued that as long as public schools are funded adequately and equitably, a portion of state education funds could be given to nonpublic schools to provide families with more options for the education of their children.

But Kelley ruled that Louisiana’s Act 2, the so-called voucher bill, and Senate Concurrent Resolution 99, which were passed last spring, unconstitutionally divert to nonpublic entities “MFP funds that are constitutionally mandated to be allocated to public elementary and secondary schools.”

Kelley added that the act and concurrent resolution unconstitutionally divert to nonpublic entities “local funds included in the MFP that are constitutionally mandated to be allocated” to public schools. Through the Minimum Foundation Program formula, this year the state is providing $3.4 billion in basic state aid for school operations and students statewide.

“We strongly disagree with the ruling,” Education Superintendent John White said. “We are optimistic this decision will be reversed on appeal.”

Following the decision, a state Department of Education official, Barry Landry, said state officials have begun looking at the possibility of funding the voucher program from the state’s general fund. Monies from this fund have been used for several years to pay for a much smaller voucher program in New Orleans.

Upon hearing of Kelley’s decision, Jan Daniel Lancaster, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said: “Our commitment remains to provide a high quality Catholic education and experience to the students and families in our Catholic schools whether they are currently on a state scholarship or not.

“Our doors remain open to our scholarship students and we will wait to see what actions need to be taken as a result of this judgment as we move into the future.”

To be eligible to apply for a state education voucher, students must be enrolled in a persistently low-performing school and their family must meet the financial requirement of an annual income up to 250 percent of the poverty line, or $57,625 for a family of four.

Deavers is editor/general manager of The Catholic Commentator, newspaper of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, La.