Individual schools to be sued over vouchers

Attorneys for a teachers’ union are threatening lawsuits against individual private and parochial schools that accept voucher payments.

Voucher backers denounced the maneuver.

The letters to schools were sent on behalf of the Louisiana Association of Educators, which has challenged the voucher law in the 19th Judicial District Court.

A hearing is set for October, but state Superintendent of Education John White announced earlier this week that vouchers have been authorized for about 5,600 students at 119 schools statewide.

But a letter sent by LAE attorneys to St. Theodore Holy Family Catholic School in Lake Charles, which is one of the voucher schools, says that any voucher payments to the school “would constitute an unconstitutional payment of public funds.”

Unless the school agrees not to take the state aid, the letter says, “we will have no alternative other than to institute litigation against St. Theodore Holy Family Catholic School,” including a request for a temporary restraining order from accepting any state funds.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Advocate, asks for a faxed response by Friday at 4 p.m.

Brian Blackwell of Blackwell & Associates, who sent the letters, said about 95 have been sent to schools so far.

In a telephone interview, Blackwell said since a judge has declined to prevent the state from dispersing voucher dollars the letters are aimed at keeping schools from accepting them.

“The purpose of the letter is to give each of those schools the opportunity to do that on a voluntary basis rather than having to do it on a litigated basis,” he said.

Blackwell said the action would also prevent efforts to recover the state aid if the program is ruled unconstitutional.

LAE officials, who are holding a conference in Marksville, were not immediately available for comment.

Danny Loar, executive director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Thursday superintendents of Catholic schools that have agreed to accept voucher students have been told to ignore the LAE’s letter.

“We are not going to pay any attention to this,” Loar said. “They are just trying to intimidate us.”

White was not available for comment.

Jimmy Faircloth, an attorney in Alexandria who is representing the state in the lawsuit, is out of the office, according to a spokeswoman for the firm.

Kyle Plotkin, director of communications for Gov. Bobby Jindal, who initiated the voucher expansion program, called the LAE’s stance shameful.

Eric Lewis, head of the Louisiana branch of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and a backer of vouchers, called the letter sophomoric.

Blackwell disagreed with the criticism. “It is neither an attempt to intimidate people nor shameful,” he said.

“I mean the program is unconstitutional,” Blackwell added. “The lawyers for the bishops should know that. I know the governor knows that. And you know all we are doing is trying to prevent the spending of public dollars on unconstitutional programs.”

The new voucher law allows students who attended C, D and F public schools, and who meets income rules, to qualify for vouchers to pay for tuition and mandatory fees at private and parochial schools.

Jindal has called the aid a way out for students trapped in failing schools.

The LAE and other public school groups contend that the way the bill passed the Legislature was illegal.

They also say that the vouchers improperly redirect state tax dollars long reserved for public schools to private and parochial schools