WALKER — Sen. David Vitter on Tuesday assailed the U.S. Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Louisiana’s school voucher program, saying it’s ridiculous that the department would try to block a program that helps students move from failing schools.
Vitter, Louisiana’s Republican junior senator, has been a supporter of the voucher program.
“Saving poor black kids from a failing public education system is not a desegregation problem. It’s education reform,” Vitter said.
The Justice Department filed a motion in federal court Saturday asking a judge to decide whether children attending school in Louisiana districts under federal desegregation orders should receive the vouchers.
The department says it only wants to block Louisiana from issuing future vouchers without court authorization. It says the voucher program impedes the desegregation process.
Gov. Bobby Jindal quickly denounced the litigation, characterizing it as a threat to children’s opportunities for a strong education.
Vitter made his remarks against the Department of Justice suit during a town hall meeting Tuesday morning with constituents in Walker.
Darlene Belle, of Denham Springs, asked Vitter about the federal suit against the voucher program.
“Their argument is that it’s hurting desegregation,” Vitter replied. “The irony of that is that the huge majority of the students here in Louisiana that it’s helping are poor black kids, helping them get into functional schools.”
State lawmakers in 2012 passed legislation that expanded a program allowing public school students to attend private schools with taxpayer-dollar support. Hundreds of children statewide currently participate in the voucher program.
The federal government argues the state already has awarded vouchers to students in at least 22 districts still under federal desegregation orders.
Thirty-four parish school boards are under federal desegregation court orders, State Superintendent of Education John White has said. About 600 students obtained vouchers in those districts last year.
The Department of Justice has evidence that the voucher program may be leading to more “one-race” private schools in less urban areas and hurting desegregation efforts, Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan has said.
U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle, of the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans, is scheduled to hear the Department of Justice’s case Sept. 18.
Vitter touched on a number of issues at the Tuesday town hall meeting, but most of the questions he fielded were about the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as “Obamacare” after President Barack Obama.
Residents repeatedly asked Vitter what he would do to have the hotly debated health care law repealed.
Vitter said the Affordable Care Act will not be repealed with a Democrat-controlled Senate and Obama in office.
Vitter said Republicans blew two major chances in 2012 to strike down the law — the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the law and the presidential election.
“(Chief Justice) John Roberts, in my opinion, blew that (Supreme Court decision),” Vitter said. “… The American people collectively, in my opinion, blew that (election).”
Vitter pointed to the 2014 elections as a turning point, saying the U.S. Senate race in Louisiana between incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican challenger U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy could help give control of the Senate to the GOP.
“A lot of you, like me, were probably pretty frustrated last year during the presidential election that Louisiana was basically irrelevant. We were not a battleground state,” he said. “… Next year, we have a big midterm election. We’re not irrelevant for that election.”