GOP leaders ask Justice Department to justify intervention
WASHINGTON — Republican congressional leaders Tuesday asked President Barack Obama’s Justice Department to stop trying to block Louisiana from giving vouchers to students in some failing public schools so they can attend private ones.
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and others wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, pushing the Louisiana legal fight over vouchers and their impact on the school desegregation process into the national spotlight.
Furthering that debate, Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are speaking Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington on the matter.
The letter from Boehner asked for explanations on why the federal government would get involved in the matter and also requests all meetings as well as written and electronic correspondences the Obama administration has had on the matter.
“The department’s allegation that the Louisiana program could impede the desegregation process is extremely troubling and paradoxical in nature,” the letter states. “If DOJ is successful in shutting down this invaluable school choice initiative, not only will students across Louisiana be forced to remain in failing schools, but it could have a reverberating effect and cause other states to feel pressured to shut down similar initiatives that provide countless children the opportunity to receive a better education.”
Others signing the letter included U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.; House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.; House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn.; Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind.; and Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodger.
Vouchers are state aid for students who attend public schools rated C, D or F, and who meet other conditions, to attend private schools.
Jindal and other backers say the aid offers students trapped in poor schools a way out. Critics say vouchers drain vital dollars from traditional public schools.
The Justice Department is attempting in federal court to ban Louisiana from continuing the voucher program for students who otherwise would attend public schools under federal desegregation orders.
Louisiana has 34 school districts under federal desegregation orders that seek equal treatment and funding for all students in areas where there was evidence of racial discrimination decades ago. The Justice Department is arguing that consent from a federal judge overseeing desegregation orders is needed to continue the voucher program.
Vouchers have been given to students in 22 of those districts, according to the lawsuit. The Obama administration argued that vouchers have negatively impacted racial demographics in schools in 13 of the districts thus far and, as a result, harmed the desegregation progress. The contention is that expanding the voucher program could further skew racial demographics and create additional racial segregation.
In a prepared statement, Jindal thanked the House leadership for getting involved.
“They are exactly right about the Obama administration’s backwards lawsuit that is only an attempt to curry favor with government unions and deny children an equal opportunity to get a great education,” Jindal stated. “The Obama administration can try and ignore this, but the voices of parents who want to give their children a better education are only getting louder.”
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., questioned the merit of the Justice Department’s legal involvement, but she also criticized Jindal for allegedly over-politicizing the matter.
Landrieu said the focus should be on helping children, especially poor children, getting into good schools, much of which has been achieved through public charter schools.
“It’s unfortunate that vouchers have taken center stage in a debate where most of the actual increases in student achievement have been achieved through public charter schools and on school reforms that push for more choice and entrepreneurship,” Landrieu said.
“The governor’s poll numbers are waning, and I think this is just, you know, part of his political agenda,” she said.
“The Justice Department’s criticism of Louisiana does not hold a tremendous amount of merit and that needs to be addressed,” Landrieu added. “But the saddest thing of all is that, instead of focusing on what works for kids, this issue is being politicized.”