As school districts and states across the country gear up to face potential school voucher litigation, lawyers from Louisiana and Arizona offered advice and lessons learned to members of NSBA’s Council of School Attorneys (COSA) on Friday during the second day of the 2014 School Law Seminar in New Orleans.
Robert Hammonds of Hammonds, Sills, Adkins & Guice, of Baton Rouge, La., and Christopher Thomas, with Arizona School Boards Association, were the featured speakers at the Friday morning session.
Hammonds represented the Louisiana School Boards Association in the state Supreme Court case against the state’s voucher program. LSBA was a plaintive in the case. The court ruled in 2013 that the voucher program was unconstitutional.
“I’ve attempted to give you some options if you are confronting a voucher challenge,” said Hammonds. “These are strategies that we used.”
The Louisiana voucher law allowed money from the state public education funding formula to go directly to private schools for students who opted out of the public schools. The state constitution says the state funding board was charged with equitably allocating funds to public schools.
“We said: ‘How can you use public money to fund nonpublic schools?’ We challenged based on state constitution,” said Hammonds. “Many of your states have similar provisions in your constitution. If you get in that situation, those provisions are there.”
Another option to fight vouchers: desegregation orders. Hammonds said some districts have successfully challenged voucher programs by proving that such programs prevented them from following their court-ordered desegregation plans.
A third option is turning to an independent state auditor, such as the one in Louisiana. Because this position is independent of partisan politics, he or she can evaluate the voucher program on its fairness and merits. The Louisiana auditor found many issues with the state voucher program. “If you have similar position in state, look to it,” Hammonds said.
Thomas talked about the choice and voucher cases in Arizona. He warned the audience of a new voucher tact: empowerment scholarship accounts. These allow parents of certain groups of children, such as those with IEPs, to send their children to private schools and the state will pay the tuition.
A lower court validated the program, saying the money went to parents, not private schools. The Arizona Supreme Court recently declined to hear the case, leaving the lower court ruling intact. Proponents now are gearing up to expand access to the programs. Said Thomas, “It will be coming to you.”
The School Law Seminar continues through Saturday.