Louisiana cooperating with Justice over school voucher program

September 24, 2013

Under the supervision of a federal court, Louisiana has agreed to supply the Justice Department with data about its controversial school voucher program and to analyze whether the vouchers are re-segregating schools that are under federal orders to achieve a balance between white and black students.

In a letter Tuesday to House Speaker John A. Boehner, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Peter J. Kadzik called the agreement a “significant breakthrough” in the standoff between Louisiana and the Justice Department over the voucher program.

But Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal( R ) sounded less conciliatory hours later. “While attempting to rebrand its legal challenge as merely an attempt to seek  information about implementation of the scholarship program, the administration’s real motive still stands – forcing parents to go to federal court to seek approval for where they want to send their children to school,” Jindal said in a written statement.

In recent days, Jindal and a posse of Republican leaders, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), have expressed outrage that the Justice Department was attempting to block Louisiana’s voucher program.

Vouchers are tax dollars given to poor students to attend private schools.

The Justice Department filed suit last month in New Orleans federal court to block vouchers next school year for students who want to leave public schools that are under desegregation orders.

The federal government has argued that Louisiana’s voucher program “impeded the desegregation process” underway in schools that had once been segregated. In its court filing, Justice cited Tangipahoa Parish, where Independence Elementary School lost five white students to voucher schools. 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.

To date, vouchers have been given to about 8,000 students in 22 of the 34 Louisiana districts under desegregation orders.

Federal officials said Louisiana had refused to supply them with with demographic information about the students who applied for and received vouchers — data that state officials routinely collected. The Justice Department sued Louisiana to get the same information for the 2012-2013 school year and then had to sue again to get the data for the 2013-2014 year. A spokesman for Jindal said the federal government’s claims that Louisiana is being obstructionist is disingenuous because the data it seeks will not be available until November.

Last Friday, after a meeting of the two sides convened by the federal court, Louisiana agreed to provide the demographic information. The state also agreed to analyze the voucher program’s impact on desegregation efforts and provide it by Nov. 7.

“We are pleased that Louisiana finally has agreed to provide the necessary information ... it is only regrettable that the Department had to resort to court involvement in this case in order to obtain it,” Kadzik wrote to Boehner.

The federal court said it will decide two outstanding questions: whether the desegregation order applies to the voucher program, and therefore requires Louisiana to seek approval from the court to issue the vouchers, and if so, whether a process for reviewing vouchers should be created.

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. Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has made the voucher program a focal point of his education plan.

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

In his letter to Boehner, Kazdik said the Justice Department was
neither opposed to Louisiana’s voucher program nor trying to revoke vouchers already held by students.

But he cautioned that the program may not be delivering “better education opportunities” for Louisiana students, noting media reports about problems associated with the program, including a lack of accountability, financial oversight and limited parent choice. Kazdik pointed to one school which received about 100 low-income students for the 2012-2013 school year “despite having no teachers or actual classrooms. Students in the school were only shown DVDs until the ‘school’ was exposed and ejected from the program for financial irregularities.”

Similar problems have been reported at the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, the only federally funded school voucher plan.

In May, Louisiana’s highest court ruled that its voucher program violated the state’s Constitution because it used funds that are designed to be spent on public schools. Jindal found another source of money within the state budget to fund it.

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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