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Judges to Jindal: “L’état, c’est pas toi” (‘You are not the state, Bobby’)

Bobby14If Bobby Jindal was capable of empathy, last week he would have known what Mitt Romney has been going through since the November 6th election. Losing is never easy for those who feel entitled to winning.

A federal judge and a state court judge each struck down his voucher program, putting his signal legislative achievement on the brink of extinction.

On Tuesday, Federal Judge Ivan Lemelle exempted the Tangipahoa Public School System from Act 2 (the official name of the Jindal voucher program) because the new law strips the Tangipahoa system of the resources needed to comply with a federal desegregation order. Tangipahoa was brought the challenge but more than 30 Louisiana public school districts operate under desegregation orders today.

Judge Lemelle ordered the Jindal administration to stop implementing the taxpayer funded voucher program in Tangipahoa Parish. Presumably other districts in similar circumstances would have to go to a federal court to obtain similar relief.

Ominously for Jindal and his plan, Judge Lemelle also suspended the state’s new teacher hiring, evaluation and promotion practices in Tangipahoa Parish, which also faces a constitutional challenge in state court which will be heard later this month in Baton Rouge.

On Thursday, the state Department of Education sought to stay Lemelle’s ruling so that another round of MFP funding could reach schools that are participating in the voucher program. The money is paid out quarterly. Disbursements to public school systems and voucher schools were due to be made on Monday, December 3.

On Friday, Judge Tim Kelley of Baton Rouge declared Act 2 unconstitutional because it violates the provision in the Louisiana Constitution that reserves minimum foundation formula program (MFP) dollars for support of public education in Louisiana. Unlike the post-Katrina voucher program in New Orleans which was funded through state General Fund appropriations, Act 2 raids the MFP to send state and local education tax dollars into the coffers of private school operators.

The suit was brought by the Louisiana Association of Educators, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, and the Louisiana School Boards Association.

All Vouchers at Risk

Those Orleans Parish schools accepting vouchers are also now in jeopardy. That’s because Jindal  – in the heady, early days of the 2012 Regular session when he was a Governor in full, at the peak of its powers – rolled the funding for the Orleans voucher schools out of the General Fund and into the MFP.

Judge Kelley’s ruling struck down Act 2 because of the use of MFP dollars for private education, but also because, in Jindal’s effort to fund voucher schools, the Governor’s bill authorized the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Education to commandeer local tax dollars that were dedicated to public education.

If Judge Kelley’s ruling stands and Jindal has his heart set on creating a voucher program in Louisiana, he’s going to be forced to do that without de-funding public schools in Louisiana. Judge Kelley wrote: “The public school systems of the State of Louisiana will lose funding they would have received from the Defendants for the operation of their schools and for the benefit of their students. Neither the constitutional nor statutory provisions outlined hereinabove permit such reduction in funding.”

The Court’s Got Talent

The next constitutional challenge against Jindal’s so-called reform package comes in another Baton Rouge state court where the LFT is challenging Act 1 (also known as the TALENT Act), which changed teacher hiring, evaluation and promotion practices. That case is scheduled to be heard on December 17.

The rule of law has been a rude awakening for the Governor who dismissed any and all concerns regarding the constitutionality of the education reforms. It will be interesting to see if these rulings cause Jindal to slow down or speed up his attempt to implement the program that a federal judge and a state court judge have ruled against.

Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the matter that Jindal, how avows to be a small government conservative for national consumption, executed a massive state power grab of Louisiana public education through Act 1 and Act 2. The laws shift large chunks of control of local school systems from the local level to Baton Rouge, including taking control of local public education tax dollars.

The Rule of Law Vs. Jindal

The rule of law now presents the biggest obstacle to Jindal’s political prospects. He still has control of the Louisiana Senate, while a majority of the House appears to be in open rebellion against the Governor.

Attorney General Buddy Caldwell has become a thorn in his side with a series of Attorney General’s Opinions that have forced Jindal to at least have to work to obtain his objectives. The Office of Group Benefits (OGB) privatization took two tries and the firing of key Republicans from the House Appropriations Committee to get done. The LSU Board of Supervisors will have to redo their decision to consolidate the positions at the top of that system after Caldwell ruled that the board had violated the open meetings law by voting on a matter that was not listed on the agenda for action.

A group of conservative lawmakers have asked Caldwell to rule on whether  Jindal’s budgets pass constitutional muster with their reliance on one-time money and other smoke and mirror tricks. And Democratic Representative Stephen Ortego has filed a request for an expedited opinion from Caldwell on whether Jindal’s cuts at the LSU Hospitals have exceeded his legal authority to act without legislative approval.

Jindal’s apparent desire to use Louisiana as a staging ground for radical governmental experiments to advance his national political ambitions have begun to encounter its legal, if not the political, limits. The Governor’s and John White’s petulant responses to the Kelley voucher decision show that these are two young men accustomed to getting their way.

The law does not respond well to foot stomping. Welcome to the Republic, gentlemen.

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Originally published: Dec 6, 2012