A private-school voucher program in Louisiana is set to expand to include more students than ever, and the teachers’ union is not happy. Last week, the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), the local affiliate of the National Education Association, had its lawyers send this intimidating notice to a school participating in the newly expanded voucher program. The message: participating in this program could get you sued. According to the Advocate, similar letters have been mailed to 95 other participating schools. The lawyers state in the letters that they are prepared to pursue legal action against schools that participate in the voucher program because it is, in their estimation, unconstitutional.
The state of Louisiana specifically designed its voucher program, the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence, to serve low-income students trapped in failing schools. In order to qualify for the program, the student had to have attended a school that was rated “C,” “D,” or “F” by the state accountability system and to have come from a family that makes less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line. Originally limited to Orleans Parish, the program is slated to expand statewide in August 2012. Students are allowed to take the vouchers to private schools, which do not have unionized teachers, a point of contention for the union.
Teachers’ unions fear vouchers, as students choosing to attend private schools cut into their market share and curtail the primary source of their revenue and political power, the dues of their unionized members.
In particular, the LAE is upset because the Louisiana appellate court did not strike down the program when asked to rule on it, clearing its implementation for the upcoming school year. But, rather than spending their time and energy focusing on an appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court, they have tried to intimidate schools into not participating. It is highly unlikely that the state supreme court would hear the case until after school started and, should the union be successful in their challenge, they would be responsible for forcing students to leave the private schools they had begun to attend. This would be a PR nightmare. To circumvent this problem, the unions are trying to prevent students from taking advantage of the program in the first place.
In Louisiana, the response to the letters was one of disgust. According to a story in the Lafayette Advertiser, Louisiana state superintendent John White called these actions “disgraceful,” while Penny Dastugue, president of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education termed it “outrageous” and “absurd.”
Around the nation, responses took on a tone of shock. Kevin Chavous, a leader of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and former D.C. council member said, “Even by standards of the typical special-interest bullying tactics, this is an unbelievably demeaning and insulting action that aims ultimately to hurt the futures of thousands of children.” Clint Bollick, a litigator for the Goldwater Institute, said, “In over two decades of school choice advocacy, I’ve never seen thuggery of this magnitude. What the unions can’t accomplish in the courtroom, they’re trying to achieve through bullying schools whose only offense is offering educational opportunities to children who need them.”
While the union’s behavior is disgusting, it certainly isn’t shocking.
Unfortunately, this is just another example of unions choosing to harass educators when they have lost a political or legal battle. It was just about a year ago that the pro-union protesters who were attempting to recall Scott Walker put on a shameful display in Wisconsin. At Messmer Prep, a private non-union school in Milwaukee, protesters super-glued doors shut, creating a fire hazard that endangered children; they berated Brother Bob Smith, the school’s leader and an anchor to Milwaukee’s black community; and they denigrated the school’s teachers who had done nothing more than show up to work that day.
If unions do not like vouchers, there are plenty of outlets for them to voice their distaste. If they wish to change the law, they should lobby their legislators. If they don’t like the governor, they should try and vote him out in the next election. If they don’t like the way the court rules, they should camp outside in protest. Any of these remedies are well within both their rights and the scope of appropriateness and decency.
What they shouldn’t do is badger, demean, or harass people that are working hard every day to educate children. When they do that, they look less like an organization with the best interests of children in mind and more like a power-hungry interest group that will stop at nothing to maintain its hegemony.
— Michael Q. McShane is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former high-school English teacher. His new book, President Obama and Education Reform: The Personal and the Political, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan this September.