Jindal criticizes Justice Department letter on voucher lawsuits

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington in this Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, AP file photo. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) Show caption
Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington in this Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, AP file photo. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Gov. Bobby Jindal lashed out Tuesday at what he called the U.S. Justice Department’s “P.R. stunt” after the federal government claimed a breakthrough was made in its lawsuit that seeks to temporarily halt the state’s school voucher program.

In a new court filing and in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, the Justice Department said the state has agreed to provide information to the federal government on the program.

The Obama administration says the voucher initiative has hurt desegregation efforts.

On Friday, the U.S. District Court in New Orleans ordered Louisiana to undertake an analysis of the voucher program and provide it to the federal government by Nov. 7. The Justice Department said in a court document that the Jindal administration agreed to comply.

“This represents a significant breakthrough,” the Justice Department said in its letter to Boehner. “We are pleased that Louisiana finally has agreed to provide the necessary information to the department. It is only regrettable that the department had to resort to court involvement in this case in order to obtain it.”

“The state defendants have now indicated to the United States that some of the requested information will be provided by Sept. 26 (Thursday) and nearly all of the remainder should be provided by Oct. 8,” according to a supplemental motion filed by the federal government Monday.

Jindal called the Justice Department’s claims a disingenuous stunt.

“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 prepared statement.

“The administration claims the state is suddenly providing information, when in reality, the information the federal government is seeking does not even exist yet. And they know it,” Jindal added.

“The federal government is attempting to retreat in name only, but is not backing off its attack on Louisiana parents.”

Jindal called on the Justice Department to drop its lawsuit .

Boehner and other Republican House leaders previously had written to Attorney General Eric Holder asking the government to reconsider its lawsuit.

According to the federal government, Louisiana had refused to provide data about the students who were benefiting from the voucher program and an analysis of how the program changed the racial composition of the affected schools.

Last month, the department sued Louisiana to stop the state from distributing school vouchers in any district that remains under a desegregation court order.

Jindal, who is considering a 2016 presidential bid, has embarked on somewhat of a national tour to contend President Barack Obama and Holder are denying students in his state the same opportunities their own children enjoy.

About 8,000 Louisiana students are attending private or parochial schools through the voucher program. The program allows children from low-income families in some school districts to use public money to attend private schools. But the program runs up against decades-old desegregation efforts. Louisiana has 70 school districts, and 34 remain under desegregation court orders.

In its letter Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department reiterated it is not opposing the voucher program and is only trying to determine if desegregation orders apply to the program and whether the vouchers are harming desegregation efforts.

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

The letter also added to Boehner and others that, “You should be aware that it is not clear that all of the new schools for which children are receiving vouchers in Louisiana provide opportunities that are better than or even equal to those in their old schools.”

The Justice letter specifically noted the case of New Living Word School in Lincoln Parish that initially had about 300 vouchers approved — ultimately receiving about 100 — and the school had no teachers or classrooms and only showed students educational videos.

The Justice Department said Louisiana has given vouchers this school year to students in at least 22 districts remaining under desegregation orders.

In court papers, the department said Louisiana distributed vouchers in 2012-13 to almost 600 public school students in districts that are still under such orders, and many of those vouchers impeded the desegregation process.

The department cited the example of an elementary school losing five white students because of the voucher program, reinforcing the racial identity of the school as a black school.

In another example, the lawsuit said a majority-white school in a majority-black district lost six black students because of vouchers, reinforcing the school’s racial identity as a white school.