By Rob Boston
Louisiana has an incredibly bad record when it comes to taxpayer aid to religious schools.
Back in the 1920s, Gov. Huey Long pushed a bill through the legislature giving textbooks to Catholic schools at taxpayer expense. The state has been the site of repeated efforts to siphon tax dollars away from public schools into the coffers of religious schools ever since.
Two especially dangerous bills are moving in the Pelican State. One expands existing voucher programs that are limited to “special needs” students and select students in New Orleans to include all low-income students. Another is a tax credit scheme that is gaining in popularity among right-wing legislators. Under these boondoggles, which are essentially vouchers by another name, people donate money to organizations that offer “scholarships” (vouchers) to private school patrons. The donor then gets a 100 percent tax rebate.
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Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is playing hardball on this issue. Last week, state Rep. Harold Ritchie (D-Franklinton) was replaced as vice chairman of the House Insurance Committee after he voted against the tax-credit plan during a committee vote.
“I understand the consequences of votes,” Ritchie told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “They had to send a message, I guess. If you are going to be in leadership, evidently you have to be there 100 percent of the time.”
Added Ritchie, “They were just sending a message to all who are fixing to vote (on administration bills). That is just fear and intimidation.”
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu blasted the move in a press release.
“Gov. Jindal said yesterday that he wants this process to be an open one, with time and opportunity ‘for people to offer their ideas, their reviews, their comments,’” noted Landrieu. “If that is true – and he is serious about allowing an open and fair review of his proposals – this type of intimidation should not be part of this important and extraordinary debate.”
Ritchie said he voted against the bill (HB 969) because he’s concerned about its provisions.
“I asked a few questions about the accountability provisions in it,” Ritchie said. “I just couldn’t vote for it…. I’ve got to vote my conscience. I have to vote [with the needs of] my district back home.”
Ritchie is right to be concerned about accountability. Private school boosters in the state are salivating at the prospect of receiving taxpayer support, but they have steadfastly resisted all efforts to impose any accountability standards.
Gene Mills, executive director the politically powerful Louisiana Family Forum (an arm of Focus on the Family), wrote recently that the only accountability private religious schools should have is to the parents who use those schools.
“I am of the impression that the cries for accountability and testing are a ‘poison pill’ designed to cripple the Jindal education reform package,” Mills wrote. “No church-run school would or should adopt the onerous and unproductive edicts, mandates, standards, test, philosophies, fees or red tape that so-called ‘accountability’ imposes.”
Some legislators are concerned about the accountability issue and have proposed legislation that would impose the same standardized tests on the private schools taking part in the "choice" plan that public school students take. It’s unclear how all of this will shake out.
Americans United sent an alert to its Louisiana members urging them to speak out against vouchers in the state. Unfortunately, pro-voucher sentiment appears to be strong in the legislature. Legislation expanding the voucher plan to low-income students passed the state House yesterday and is headed to the Louisiana Senate. Legislators did approve an amendment to the bill requiring some accountability, but details would apparently be set by the governor’s allies.
During debate over that bill, some legislators argued that Louisiana is turning its back on public education. State Rep. Robert Johnson (D-Marksville) asserted, “I came here to fix the public school system….We shouldn’t raise the white flag…and pass the buck to the private school system.”
Johnson is right on. Private schools are popular in Louisiana, but public institutions still serve more than 80 percent of the children there. Those schools alone deserve taxpayer support.
The tax credit plan is scheduled to face a vote next week. If you live in Louisiana, now is the time to contact your state legislators