Louisiana Voucher Test

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Meet 11-year-old Gabriel Evans, teachers union enemy No. 1.

Here’s the bizarre world in which we live: In 2007 Gabriel Evans attended a public school in New Orleans graded “F” by the Louisiana Department of Education. Thanks to a New Orleans voucher program, Gabriel moved in 2008 to a Catholic school. His mother, Valerie Evans, calls the voucher a “lifesaver,” allowing him to get “out of a public school system that is filled with fear, confusion and violence.”

So what is the response of the teachers union? Sue the state to force 11-year-old Gabriel back to the failing school.

This week a state court in Baton Rouge is hearing the union challenge to Louisiana’s Act 2, which expanded the New Orleans program statewide and allows families with a household income less than 250% of the federal poverty line to get a voucher to escape schools ranked C or worse by the state. Gabriel’s voucher covers $4,315 in annual tuition.

The tragedy is how many students qualify for the program. According to the state, 953 of the state’s 1,373 public schools (K-12) were ranked C, D or F. Under the new program, more than 4,900 students have received scholarships allowing them to attend non-public schools.

Enter the teachers unions, which sued this summer to stop the incursion into their rotting enterprise. According to the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators, the voucher program steals money from public schools.

But teachers who do their homework know that the state constitution has no prohibition on where money may be allocated, as long as it is going to educate Louisiana children. Louisiana school funding is determined by a designated Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, instead of directly by lawmakers. According to the state’s constitution, the Board must set a “minimum foundation” for funding and ensure that it is fairly distributed among school districts, locally known as parishes. In poorer neighborhoods, the state chips in to make up for any shortfall in local funding.

According to the Institute for Justice, which represents families using the program, the financial footprint of the scholarships so far has been small. Per pupil expenditures have not been affected in the public schools. And of some $3.6 billion in state funds spent by Louisiana to bolster its Minimum Foundation Program, only $22,054,733 is attributable to the new student scholarship program, around 0.6%.

The real squeeze isn’t to public education but to the publicly employed educators, whose union interests have long since taken primacy over providing kids with a decent education. The Louisiana unions know that putting their dismal classrooms into competition with private schools could eventually have students and parents trampling each other in a rush to the exits.

Louisiana’s story is the latest study in how far the education bureaucracy will go to protect its money and power and resist the competition that comes from school choice, even when it means forcing kids to return to schools that steal their futures. The scholarships are only available to students in failing schools. If teachers unions want to stop their students from leaving, they don’t need a lawsuit. They need to start serving 11-year-olds like Gabriel Evans instead of themselves.

A version of this article appeared November 29, 2012, on page A16 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Louisiana Voucher Test.

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