Stephanie Grace: Jindal should thank Holder for issue

Attorney General Eric Holder, speaks about the mandatory minimum policy at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's 2013 annual legislative conference in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013.   (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) Show caption
Attorney General Eric Holder, speaks about the mandatory minimum policy at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's 2013 annual legislative conference in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

You know what’s a pretty good P.R. stunt? Accusing someone else of pulling a P.R. stunt.

And thus Gov. Bobby Jindal won yet another round of headlines in what’s become an all-out crusade to score political points off the Justice Department’s ham-handed legal challenge to Louisiana’s voucher program.

The “P.R. stunt” in question was the federal government’s assertion this week that the standoff, technically over whether vouchers are adversely affecting schools’ racial balance in parishes covered by desegregation orders, has reached a breakthrough. In a court filing and companion letter to U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner, Justice Department officials noted that the Jindal administration has agreed to provide data on how the program is playing out in covered schools.

“To be clear, we are neither opposing Louisiana’s school voucher program nor seeking to revoke any vouchers from any students,” the letter said. “When properly run, state and local voucher programs need not conflict with legal requirements to desegregate schools.”

Hogwash, the governor insisted. Jindal labeled the government’s attempt to lower the temperature a “retreat in name only,” and reiterated his contention that the injunction request is simply an “attack on Louisiana parents.”

And honestly, why wouldn’t he? In his tireless, more-miss-than-hit campaign to find a signature issue that resonates not only in the state but beyond its borders, this one really fits the bill.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department made it all too easy. Why the feds chose to pick this fight is a mystery, given the small number of children involved — about 600, according to the suit — and the fact that school segregation isn’t exactly a burning issue these days.

Why Jindal is making a very, very big deal of it is no mystery at all. The showdown allows him to present himself as a defender of poor families seeking opportunity, a champion of state prerogative against the big bad federal government, and a leader on an issue that a significant bloc of Republican voters nationwide care about — which is perhaps why he’s showing so much more passion over this than, say, the looming flood insurance crisis in Louisiana.

It also obscures much more on-point concerns over the voucher program itself. State courts have blocked the intended funding mechanism, the per-pupil Minimum Foundation Program allotment, so the money to pay for vouchers must now come out of the seriously overstressed general fund. Critics have also raised concerns over the quality of education provided at some taxpayer-subsidized schools, which are not subject to the same strict accountability protocol as public schools. Jindal, a proponent of standards for public schools, has taken a parents-know-best approach to schools that accept vouchers. Even so, Jindal’s histrionics over the issue are increasingly over the top.

Jindal has parlayed the Justice Department action into national television appearances and sympathetic op-ed pieces.

He’s enlisted other big-name conservatives in the cause — not just Boehner but also Majority Leader Eric Cantor and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who joined Jindal at a National Press Club event to highlight the suit.

He’s even launched a clunky $500,000 television ad campaign, financed out of his still-ample political war chest, which solicits signatures for an online petition protesting the government’s move.

“The federal government in Washington is out of control. Now they want to run our schools. The know-it-alls in Washington think they know better than Louisiana parents,” Jindal says in the ad. “Kind of like with Obamacare, when they tried to put the IRS in charge of our health care. I’m fighting to keep Obamacare out of Louisiana. I’m fighting to keep the federal government out of our schools.”

Never mind that Jindal’s proud refusal to expand access to Medicaid belies a central theme of his pro-voucher message, that government should try to help families trapped in unfortunate circumstances.

All this, of course, is nominally aimed at influencing a decision that will be made inside a courtroom, not at the ballot box.

Still, given how it’s going so far, Jindal clearly doesn’t want the public side of this battle to end any time soon. So expect him to launch many more missives against Holder and his lawyers. Even though what Jindal really should send is a thank-you note.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.