WATSON — Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Watson, says she had no idea that Gov. Bobby Jindal’s overhaul of the state’s educational system might mean taxpayer support of Muslim schools.
“I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools,” the District 64 Representative said Monday.
“I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school,” Hodges said.
Hodges mistakenly assumed that “religious” meant “Christian.”
HB976, now signed into law as Act 2, proposed, among other things, a voucher program allowing state educational funds to be used to send students to schools run by religious groups.
Other members of the local legislative delegation, including Senator Dale Erdey, Rep. J. Rogers Pope and Rep. Sherman Mack, opposed HB976. They argued that public school funds should stay with the public schools.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s staff pushed hard to get the educational bills approved in the early days of the session, which ended June 4.
Hodges, who represents District 64 on the northwest side of the parish, and another freshman lawmaker in the local delegation, Clay Schexnayder from Dist. 81 in the southwest, voted with the House majority in favor of HB976.
The school funding mechanism, however, did not come up for a vote until the end of the session. By then, a Muslim-based school had applied for support through the new voucher system.
During debate over the MFP (Minimum Foundation Program) funding formula, Hodges learned more about the consequences of the educational changes. She voted against the new MFP funding formula; Schexnayder voted for it.
“Unfortunately it will not be limited to the Founders’ religion,” Hodges said. “We need to insure that it does not open the door to fund radical Islam schools. There are a thousand Muslim schools that have sprung up recently. I do not support using public funds for teaching Islam anywhere here in Louisiana.”
The Livingston Parish School Board voted unanimously June 21 to join 19 other school districts in a lawsuit against the state, challenging the constitutionality of Act 2 (formerly HB976).
School Superintendent Bill Spear said that 124 of the 125 voucher-approved schools have some sort of religious affiliation.
“There may be more hidden things in the laws that we are not even aware of right now,” School Board President Malcolm Sibley said during a public discussion of the wide-ranging provisions of Act 2.
The new system does nothing to help public schools improve, Pope said during the session. The Governor’s overhaul is directed at giving students at poor schools a legal way to transfer to the best schools. The problem is that the best schools, including those in Livingston Parish, are usually full, Pope said.
Local lawmakers said they feared that funding of non-public schools with public school money would gradually erode the state support that has helped Livingston Parish become one of the best school systems in the state. Livingston Parish, as a predominantly residential community, does not have a strong tax base bolstered by large-scale industry and commerce. In spite of voter support for school taxes, the parish has traditionally been heavily dependent on state support.
The lawsuit claims Act 2 is unconstitutional in part because it does not “have a single object or purpose,” as required by the constitution. Act 2 is 47 pages long and covers multiple topics and purposes.
The lawsuit also claims that Act 2 violates a provision in the state constitution that “state funding for public education shall be equitably allocated to public school systems.”
The new system improperly uses public school funding for vouchers to pay tuition to private schools, including those run by religious groups, according to the lawsuit.
The new system also subsidizes home schooling, on-line courses, charter schools not affiliated with local public schools, and college tuition for early graduates, according to the lawsuit.
“We tried to put an amendment that would have blocked high school tuition going to pay college tuition, but it failed,” Hodges said.
Hodges said she was sympathetic with the Governor’s overall goal of bringing “meaningful reform to our education system, because we are next to the last in the nation.”
“I initially supported the bill because I understand the need to address and reform our education system in Louisiana,” Hodges said. “However, once you look at the details of the bill there were more questions than answers about the long term impact these changes could potentially have.
“Here we were as legislators making long-term decisions about the future of all our children while seeming to be missing key information,” Hodges said. “We owe it to the people of Louisiana while bringing reform to the schools who are missing the mark and failing to also ensure at the same time that we avoid damaging schools that are performing well and giving our students a top-notch education like the schools here in Livingston Parish.
“The schools here in Livingston Parish are the very reason that over 80,000 people have moved here and we can not risk putting them in jeopardy,” Hodges said.