Cantor blasts Justice lawsuit against La. vouchers

September 23, 2013

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Monday railed against the Obama administration’s decision to sue Louisiana over its school voucher program, becoming the latest Republican leader to attack the Justice Department over the matter.

Cantor was visiting a public charter school in Philadelphia, but his remarks focused on Louisiana and the brewing fight between the GOP and the Justice Department over the use of vouchers, which give tax dollars to students for private-school tuition.

“If the attorney general does not withdraw this suit, then the United States House will act,” Cantor said. “We will leave no stone unturned in holding him accountable for this decision. . . . The attorney general will have to explain to the American people why he believes poor minority children in Louisiana should be held back.”

Louisiana lawmakers approved a voucher program in 2008 for low-income New Orleans students in failing schools, and last year state officials expanded the Louisiana Scholarship Program statewide. It allows poor children in low-performing school districts to receive public money to attend private schools.

Critics, including President Obama and teachers unions, say vouchers drain tax dollars from public schools and argue that students at some private schools do not perform better than their public-school counterparts.

Cantor’s verbal threat against the Justice Department comes amid rising Republican opposition to the Obama administration’s position on vouchers and follows a letter Cantor signed, along with House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and the rest of the GOP House leadership, asking Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. why the federal government is suing Louisiana. The letter also requests all written and electronic communication within the Obama administration about the Louisiana voucher issue.

A similar protest letter was sent last week to Holder by Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the Senate education committee and former education secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

And Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) joined former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) at a news conference last week in Washington to decry the Justice Department’s lawsuit. They suggested that the move was the Obama administration’s political “payback” to teachers unions for their support during the 2012 election. And they said Justice is trying to keep poor students trapped in weak schools.

Jindal, whose public approval ratings have been falling, launched a television as in Louisiana on Monday that portrays a feisty governor taking on the federal government.

“The federal government in Washington is out of control,” Jindal says in the $500,000 ad, which was financed with campaign funds. “Now they want to run our schools. The know-it-alls in Washington think they know better than Louisiana parents.”

The Justice Department filed suit last month in New Orleans federal court to block 2014-15 vouchers for students in public school systems that are under federal desegregation orders.

The private-school vouchers the state began issuing in 2008 have “impeded the desegregation process,” according to the government’s court filing. To date, vouchers have been given to about 8,000 students in 22 of the 34 districts under desegregation orders.

In its court filing, the Justice Department cites examples including Tangipahoa Parish, where the Independence Elementary School lost five white students to voucher jschools. That loss of white students, though seemingly minor, shifted the demographic balance in the school and reinforced “the racial identity of the school as a black school,” the complaint said.

The Justice Department says that before vouchers can be issued, they must first be approved by a federal judge, to make sure that the transfer of students to private schools does not result in public schools that are again segregated. The complaint also seeks to require Louisiana to analyze this year’s vouchers in terms of how they may have affected school desegregation.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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