Court: Justice Department can review school vouchers

The U.S. Justice Department will get a brief window each year to review which students are getting private school vouchers in Louisiana, thanks to a federal court ruling Tuesday aimed at making sure the voucher program isn’t hindering desegregation efforts in public school districts.

The order, from U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle in New Orleans, leaves both sides in the case with room to claim victory.

The Justice Department originally wanted the judge to at least temporarily halt the program in districts with standing desegregation orders, a request that drew scornful criticism from Gov. Bobby Jindal, who counts the voucher program as one of his signature accomplishments.

Lemelle decided not to issue an injunction against the program, but he did say the Louisiana Department of Education must turn over detailed information about which students are attending which private schools each year, something the state has resisted.

The Justice Department filed for an injunction in August under the theory that vouchers in Louisiana might be leaving public schools more racially homogeneous, with black students using state aid to leave majority-white schools or vice versa.

Jindal and other voucher supporters argued it didn’t make sense to advance the goal of integration by limiting choices for black students, pointing out that most program participants are minorities.

The program pays for students from low-income families to attend a private school of their choice, as long as it has open slots.

In a statement Wednesday, the state’s top education official, Superintendent John White, called the judge’s ruling a win, since it ultimately will allow the voucher program to continue operating.

“The families and children of Louisiana have cleared another hurdle put in front of them,” White said. “Families should be able to choose the school best for their children, no matter the money in their pocketbooks. This ruling sustains that right.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also hailed the judge’s decision.

“We welcome the court’s order as it rejects the state’s bid to resist providing even the most basic information about how Louisiana’s voucher program will affect school desegregation efforts,” Holder said in a statement. “This ruling ought to resolve, once and for all, the unnecessary dispute initiated by the state’s refusal to provide data.”