Judge rules against education union in charter school suit

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's public school financing formula didn't violate the state constitution by steering $60 million to charter schools authorized by the state education board, a judge decided Friday, ruling against an education union that challenged the spending.

State District Judge Wilson Fields rejected claims from the Louisiana Association of Educators that the spending on the 33 charter schools was improper because those charter schools are created and operated outside of parish and city school systems.

Fields said the Louisiana Constitution provides that the $3.6 billion school financing formula pays for public schools — and he noted charter schools are public schools, whether created by the local school board or the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Superintendent of Education John White said the judge's ruling "reaffirms the civil right of all Louisiana families to choose the school that is right for their children."

"The ruling states unequivocally that charter schools are public schools. They exist among many options to which all parents, no matter the size of their pay check, deserve access," White said in a statement.

LAE President Debbie Meaux said her organization plans to appeal the ruling.

"We think the judge took careful consideration, but we also think we have good grounds for the suit," Meaux said in the courtroom after Fields announced his decision.

Charter schools are run with broad autonomy from state and local education officials, financed through the annual public school formula written by the state education board and approved by lawmakers, known as the Minimum Foundation Program.

Supporters say charter schools offer more specialized educational opportunities to students. Public school leaders say they take needed money away from traditional public schools, and they say if charter schools are created, they should be started in collaboration with the local school systems, not against their wishes.

In addition to the charter schools created by the state education board, the union lawsuit targeted charter schools that could be authorized by local education nonprofits, as allowed under a 2012 law.

Brian Blackwell, a lawyer for the union, had argued the Louisiana Constitution limits the funding formula to pay for the parish and city systems. He said that funneling the payment for the BESE-created charter schools through the school financing formula diverts local property and sales tax dollars that voters approved to pay for their local school systems.

But Jay O'Brien, a lawyer representing the state education department, said the purpose of the constitutional language was to ensure every child has access to an equal and adequate public education, not to dictate which school or school system provides it.

After Friday's ruling, O'Brien said Fields "recognized it's the state's responsibility to educate all public school students whether they're in traditional city or parish public schools or public charter schools."

Fields held a trial in March on the lawsuit filed by the education union and a similar lawsuit filed by the Iberville Parish School Board that challenged $4 million in spending that the school board argued was improperly diverted to charter schools. The judge's ruling also rejected the claims from the Iberville school board.

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