As so often in the tangle of politics and federal lawsuits, there is much to criticize in all sides in the latest fracas between the state and the U.S. governments.
On the one side is the U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees the compliance of about 30 Louisiana school districts under desegregation orders. Yes, those still exist, although except for a few places, the cases are mostly dormant.
How dormant? Well, the case still bears the name of the late Bill Dodd, state superintendent of education in the 1960s.
On the other side, a very much living Gov. Bobby Jindal, who wants to be president and who has staked considerable prestige on passing a controversial school voucher program.
The vouchers pay for students to go from public schools to private ones.
The reason this is a federal case is that some of the voucher students are in parishes that are under desegregation orders. The Justice Department filed a lawsuit, saying their lawyers’ efforts to get information on the vouchers were stiffed by the state Department of Education.
Subsequently, the governor and a number of prominent Republican officials have decried the lawsuit as intended to block poor parents, almost all black, from finding better schools for their children.
Only after the lawsuit went before a judge did the Louisiana officials say that they would provide the data sought by the Justice Department.
The voucher law signed by Jindal requires that the program comply with desegregation orders. That the state Education Department apparently did not bother with that is not Justice’s fault, but the federal lawyers have surely over-reacted.
The state may have an obligation to comply with desegregation orders, but for the Civil Rights Division, the minutiae of a dozen students transferring from one school to another is not a small matter, but literally a federal case. Arcane formulas about the distribution of white and nonwhite students may be out of date in most public school systems, but those remain Holy Writ to the Justice lawyers.
Justice sought an injunction against the program, in the parishes covered by the lawsuit, and it also played into the hands of its critics when it urged the court not to allow parents — doubtless egged on by the state — to intervene to talk about the merits of the vouchers.
The merits of the voucher program are not what the case is about, to the Justice Department. It is all that Jindal and his allies want to talk about.
It is not even clear yet whether the school changes by voucher students, about 600 or so, helps or hurts desegregation. But what is clear is that this isn’t a case of Justice vs. kids, as it is so facilely framed, but neither is it a case of illegally segregating schools, as the Justice Department so rightly fought back in the days when Bill Dodd was superintendent.