Vitter asks Holder to justify voucher challenge in N.O.

– U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., led a group of 30 GOP senators expressing outrage over the Department of Justice seeking to temporarily stall the state’s school voucher program because of existing desegregation orders.

The senators wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder Thursday asking him to justify the Justice Department’s litigation, as well as asking whether any political conversations were held with representatives from teachers’ unions prior to filing the suit.

The Justice Department has contended that the school voucher program — using taxpayer funds to allow students from failing public schools to attend private or parochial schools — needs a federal judge’s approval because of longstanding desegregation orders in the state. A concern noted was the program could lead to more racially segregated schools in some instances.

But the senators contended the federal lawsuit hurts the same low-income minority students that the Justice Department is claiming to protect.

“It seems to us that a program that rescues needy children from failing schools, gives families a chance to break the cycle of poverty and violence, and saves taxpayers millions of dollars each year is one that should be lauded by the federal government,” the letter stated. “Instead, the Justice Department is working to sabotage it. Shockingly, the Justice Department is doing so by targeting a small group of children based solely on the color of their skin.”

The department also is seeking more information from the state on the voucher program. A Nov. 22 hearing on the issue is set for U.S. District Court in New Orleans.

The program has grown by about 1,800 students this year from nearly 5,000 a year ago to more than 6,750 now. The program is estimated to cost the state $36 million in the current budget year.

In a prepared statement, Vitter, R-La., called the lawsuit an “outrageous attack” on Louisiana parents and students.

“Instead of allowing parents to make one of their most important choices – where to send their kids to school – the federal government is stepping in, and trapping students in failing schools to meet quotas,” Vitter stated. “Education needs to be about giving all of our students the best possible opportunity, not about reaching federal quotas determined by some bureaucrat in Washington.”