Gov. Jindal balks at Justice Dept.'s new plan for reviewing La. school voucher program

The U.S. Department of Justice proposed a new plan to review Louisiana’s private-school voucher program, setting off a wave of claims and counterclaims Tuesday over what the shift in approach means.

In court papers filed Nov. 15, the department said the proposed oversight would provide a “streamlined and orderly process” for the state without being unduly burdensome.

Gov. Bobby Jindal said the department has retreated from part of its criticism of Louisiana’s voucher program but added the newest request would still “regulate the program to death.”

A court hearing on the issue is set for Friday.

The governor’s comments were included in a news release issued Monday night.

They pertain to an ongoing controversy between state and federal officials over vouchers, which are state aid for some low-income students attending troubled public schools to attend private and parochial schools. About 6,800 students in 125 schools get the aid this year.

Earlier this year the Justice Department filed legal papers that said the vouchers risked upsetting federal desegregation orders.

Jindal said in a prepared statement that U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle, who is presiding over the case in New Orleans, said Justice Department officials had essentially abandoned their bid to stop the aid, which the governor called a victory.

“We are pleased that the Obama Administration has given up its attempt to end the Louisiana Scholarship program with this absurd lawsuit,” Jindal said in the news release.

The comments by Jindal, who has made the issue a national topic, sparked prepared comments praising to varying degrees the latest twist in the case, including House Speaker John Boehner, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and the pro-voucher groups American Federation for Children and Black Alliance for Educational Options.

Jindal said a new proposal by federal officials would be problematic as well.

Federal officials said their proposed oversight would protect a 1975 federal court order that banned the state from taking action that supported racially discriminatory or segregated private schools.

“The United States is not asking this court to require the state to obtain judicial approval before implementing the voucher program as a whole,” attorneys for the department said in court papers.

“Instead, the United States requests ... that the state provides information on the students it intends to assign to voucher schools 45 day prior to finalizing the assignments and notifying families.”

The Justice Department “will then work amicably with the state, as it has for decades, to resolve any concerns regarding the proposed voucher assignments,” attorneys wrote.

If state and federal officials are unable to resolve any disputes, the court papers say, the U.S. “will seek assistance from this court.”

Jindal said that, under the latest plan, the state would be banned from telling parents that their child had been awarded a scholarship while the Justice Department decides whether to object because of racial balance concerns.

“The Department of Justice’s new position is that it wants bureaucrats in Washington to have the authority to decide where Louisiana children get an education,” Jindal stated.

Under current rules, families apply for the vouchers and which schools they prefer.

The state Department of Education then notifies them whether they will get the aid and what schools they can attend.

Under the Justice Department proposal, the state would be required to provide federal officials with information on each voucher application, including name, race, public school they would otherwise attend, public school district and the school the state intends to assign the student.

The rules would take effect for the 2014-15 school year.

State Superintendent of Education John White, a Jindal lieutenant, said Tuesday that he was encouraged to see that federal officials were dropping their initial request that voucher applications first go through a federal court in school districts under a desegregation order.

But White said the latest review sought by the Justice Department would burden an already complex, time-consuming voucher notification process.

“It is clear they want federal control of the program,” he said of federal officials.

The federal government is a party to federal desegregation orders in 23 public school districts, including St. John the Baptist, St. Tammany, St. James, St. Martin, St. Helena and St. Mary parishes.