A state Senate committee approved legislation Thursday that would allow charter schools to refuse to admit students on the basis of their ability to speak English, their sexual orientation or other factors.
State Sen. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, said his bill is designed to ensure that executive branch agencies and local governments stop including bans on discrimination against characteristics not listed in state law as a condition for private companies to do business with their agencies.
The state Department of Education contracts with those seeking charter schools were the chief examples cited during testimony for Senate Bill 217. Gov. Bobby Jindal did not respond to requests for comment about calls to unilaterally strip the anti-discriminatory language from the department’s contract criteria.
On the other side, state Sen. Ed Murray, the only “no” in the 5-1 vote by the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations committee, said the possibility of SB217 becoming law and negating the anti-discriminatory prohibitions in charter school contracts is “really scary.”
Murray said, “I can’t believe that at the same time we as a Legislature are passing bills that expand school choice, that we would also allow charter schools to deny admission based solely on a child’s ability to speak English well enough or play basketball well enough.”
“The focus is really simple,” Crowe said. “It says stick to the law.”
State law currently forbids discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national ancestry, age, sex or disability. If the Louisiana Legislature wants to expand that list to specifically protect people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation — or anything else — legislators should pass a law, Crowe said.
Randy Trahan, an LSU law professor, testified on Crowe’s behalf that anti-discrimination language that carries the force of law is becoming more and more prevalent in government agency procedures. Only the Legislature has authority to pass laws, he said.
“The executive branch has gone rogue,” Trahan said.
One of those executive branch agencies gone rogue is the state Department of Education, he said.
Leslie Ellison, of New Orleans, testified she refused to sign a charter school contract with the state Department of Education because it required her company to promise not to discriminate against gays and others, criteria that are not listed in state law. The Louisiana Department of Education “doesn’t have the right to insert” its own opinions into a state contract, Ellison said.
The Education Department provision states: “Charter schools may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, creed, sex ethnicity, sexual orientation, mental or physical disability, age, ancestry, athletic performance, special need proficiency in the English language or in a foreign language, or academic achievement in admitting students, nor may charter schools set admissions criteria that are intended to discriminate or that have the effect of discriminating on any of these bases.”
Gene Mills, who heads Louisiana Family Forum, said after the hearing that “we’re sending a message” for Jindal to strip the provision from his Education Department’s contract criteria. Louisiana Family Forum is a coalition of religious groups that lobby the legislature on social and other issues.
Jindal did not respond Thursday to four requests for comment about the policy.
Jindal’s press secretary, Frank Collins, wrote in an email, “We’re against discrimination, but we don’t believe in special protections or rights.”
State Superintendent of Education John White also did not respond to a request for comment. His spokeswoman, Rene Greer, wrote in an email: “The Department is reviewing the bill in relation to its current charter authorization process.”