Judge Kelley: To heck with students; it's the schools that matter!

Judge Kelley: To heck with students; it's the schools that matter!

The news that a local judge just struck down Louisiana’s school voucher program should sadden every American. The program helps low-income children in failing public schools by providing their families with modest vouchers to attend private schools.  The program uses money from Louisiana’s Minimum Foundation Program (MFP), a state funding mechanism for Louisiana’s “public elementary and secondary school systems.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, the money for the voucher program represents only 0.6 % of the MFP. But even that amount is too much for Judge Timothy E. Kelley of Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District Court. In his ruling, Judge Kelley argues that the MFP money should only go to public entities, specifically public schools, as laid out in the state’s Constitution.

I’m sure some intrepid researcher could find a list of nonpublic entities that MFP money flows to under the state’s school “system,” whose goal, after all, is not to support institutions so much as to educate actual individual students, as stated in the Louisiana Constitution’s preamble to Article VIII on education: (emphasis mine):

The goal of the public educational system is to provide learning environments and experiences, at all stages of human development, that are humane, just, and designed to promote excellence in order that every individual may be afforded an equal opportunity to develop to his full potential.

In Judge Kelley’s outlook, however, developing an individual’s full potential must take a back seat to the public school system. After a discussion of the state constitution’s education provisions and the intent of MFP, Judge Kelley gets to his worldview:

Lastly, this Court considered the good of the individual student as opposed to the good of the public school system. Even in this regard, it does not sway the Court’s determination. The public elementary and secondary school systems were established for the education of all school age students in Louisiana for the good and betterment of each and every child. Nowhere was it mandated that funds from the MFP, meant for public elementary and secondary school systems, be provided for an alternative education beyond what the Louisiana education system was set up for. Defendants would put forth the argument that the diversion of MFP funds into private education providers are for the good of the student since it gives them the opportunity to leave schools deemed to be underperforming; however, their argument ignores the good of the individual students who are left behind in those schools deemed underperforming. The MFP was set up to equitably allocate funds to public elementary and secondary schools. This gives public school systems in poorer districts the ability to receive funds they would not otherwise have. This Court can find no argument that can be put forth that would show that diverting funds away from such a school would be for the good of the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of students who are left behind in those underperforming school systems. The MFP was set up for students attending public elementary and secondary schools and was never meant to be diverted to private educational providers. Thus, this Court believes that the MFP is directly for the betterment of each individual student in the state, and as such, should not be diverted away from what it was meant, that being the public elementary and secondary school system of Louisiana.

Skip over his “betterment of each individual student” language lifted from the state’s constitutional education provision preamble—his ruling and this passage in particular demonstrate clearly he’s not really interested in that idea at all. To many in the school choice movement, in fact, his is a “let them all drown” argument. In other words, since the ship is sinking (failing public schools) and not everyone can be saved, no one should be saved.

It’s a preposterous idea, of course, as is Judge Kelley’s notion that “students who are left behind” are harmed by students who choose to go to another school.

In the first place, don’t such departures result in smaller class sizes, something the teachers unions and other education advocates claim is a key to educational success?

In the second place, if restraining students from leaving a school is imperative to the success of those who would be “left behind,” why not restrict all departures? Once you sign up for a public school, that’s it–you can’t go to another school, no matter what the circumstances. The school is what’s important! To heck with individual students.  Some folks in 1922 Oregon liked that idea (even if the US Supreme Court did not).

It might surprise some to learn that Judge Kelley is a Republican. But it doesn’t surprise me. During years in the school choice movement, I encountered individuals of all political stripes who might want something done to improve schools, but who weren’t that interested in going beyond their own narrow definition of public education, often based on their fond memories of the local public school they attended.

I’ve written before about the history of public schools in America and how it relates to the current school choice struggle. This history is not the triumph of enlightenment over ignorance that many believe it to be. In fact, the only reason our K-12 systems are not set up the same way our higher education institutions are—with private and public college students able to receive public funding for their education—is because of an unsavory entanglement between common school advocates and xenophobic nativists who sought to use new public schools to contain and restrict new immigrants, mostly Catholic ones. Ironically, this distasteful history led to the formation of the Catholic school system.

But for many – it seems Judge Kelley is among them – the public schools occupy an almost sacred place in American life. These people don’t view public education the way it should be seen: as the public’s responsibility to educate each individual student so that they might realize their “full potential,” as the Louisiana constitution states.

It’s that public responsibility that should inform any public funding for education. Not the transmittal process of the funding, not the particular institution it goes to.

Shame on you, Judge Kelley, for hiding behind a strict constructionist view of the Louisiana constitution to advance your narrow view of public education.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her mystery book for teens, The Case Against My Brother, is set against the backdrop of the passage of the anti-private school Oregon School Law of 1922.

Libby Sternberg

Libby Sternberg

Libby Sternberg is an Edgar-nominated novelist whose works include humorous women’s fiction, young adult fiction, and historical fiction. Her political writings have appeared at Hot Air, the Weekly Standard, Insight, the Wall Street Journal, and Christian Science Monitor.


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