Jindal rebukes fed challenge of school vouchers

Advocate staff file photo by Patrick Dennis -- Gov. Bobby Jindal, shown here in October 2011. Show caption
Advocate staff file photo by Patrick Dennis -- Gov. Bobby Jindal, shown here in October 2011.

The U.S. Department of Justice wants the federal court system to decide whether children attending school in Louisiana districts under federal desegregation orders should receive vouchers for private school tuition.

The filing in a 38-year-old court case emerged Saturday and drew a swift rebuke from Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Jindal led the charge to expand a New Orleans program that allowed public schoolchildren to use taxpayer dollars to pay for attending private schools.

“This is shameful. President (Barack) Obama and Attorney General (Eric) Holder are trying to keep kids trapped in failing public schools against the wishes of their parents,” Jindal said in a prepared statement released Saturday.

The most affected school districts would be those in Tangipahoa, St. John, Ouachita and Franklin parishes.

The justice department said it only wants to prevent the state from issuing future vouchers to students without a federal court’s authorization.

“The State did not consult with or obtain authorization from the federal courts overseeing the applicable desegregation orders before awarding any of the vouchers. As of the date of this filing, the State has awarded vouchers for the 2013-2014 school year to students in at least 22 districts operating under federal desegregation orders,” the U.S. Department of Justice filing states. Thirty-four parish school boards are under federal desegration orders.

The justice department said the state significantly increased the voucher program for the upcoming school year. The department contends the state is frustrating and impeding the desegregation process.

The governor characterized the motion as a threat to children’s opportunities.

“Giving every single child — no matter their race or their income — the opportunity to get a great education is a moral imperative. We will not sit by while folks in Washington, D.C., try to tell Louisiana parents that they are not able to attend the school of their choice,” the governor said.

The Jindal administration said nearly 90 percent of students in the voucher program are minorities.

Thirty-four school districts operate under federal desegregation court orders, State Superintendent of Education John White said Saturday.

About 600 students got vouchers in those districts last year and about a thousand of the roughly 8,000 voucher students will get payments in those school systems this year affected areas would be the, he said.

“It just strikes me as deeply cynical,” White said of the federal request. “Louisiana families, especially the poor, should be the ones to choose which schools they attend, not a judge and certainly not the federal government.”

“It’s not necessarily a program that is just helping African-American children,” Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said.

The justice department has evidence that the vouchers may be leading to more “one-race” private schools in less urban areas and hurting desegregation efforts, he said.

“There’s logic as far as the feds getting into the case,” Monaghan said.

The court documents show the Jindal administration was refusing to “provide answers to basic questions as to how this is working and getting lists of students,” he said.

The Jindal administration forcefully pushed through voucher laws with an “ideological … privatized, choice agenda” without paying attention to actual sound policy or desegregation laws, Monaghan said.

U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle, with the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans, could hold a hearing on the dispute Sept. 18.

Lemelle is the same judge who granted an injunction on the voucher program in Tangipahoa Parish, saying it conflicted with the parish’s decades-old desegregation suit, which Lemelle also oversees.

Lemelle also blocked implementation in Tangipahoa of teacher tenure laws that were passed in the 2012 legislative session along with the voucher program.

Court documents on the matter began in January when U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez began filing discovery motions to obtain information from the Louisiana Department of Education on the matter.

Perez, who oversaw the Justice Department’s civil rights division, also was entangled in disputes with the City of New Orleans over police department reforms and with the Louisiana Secretary of State over voter registration matters.

Perez was recently appointed the U.S. labor secretary and is no longer directly involved.

Mark Ballard, Jordan Blum and Will Sentell contributed to this report.