Dennis Persica: Jindal victory not clear in voucher ruling

Supporters of the Jindal administration’s school voucher program last week were high-fiving each other on the sidelines and were just about ready to tip over the Gatorade dispenser to celebrate winning a game that hadn’t even started yet.

Gov. Bobby Jindal claimed early in the week that the U.S. Justice Department had abandoned its lawsuit against Louisiana’s school voucher program. U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House majority leader, said the same thing.

On Nov. 19, Cantor’s blog announced that, “The Obama Administration has ended its current attack on school choice in Louisiana,” and he called it “a huge victory for so many families and students who the Department of Justice tried to deny the best possible education.”

There was a problem with these end-zone spikes, however. The Justice Department hadn’t surrendered, and U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle wouldn’t hold his hearing on the case until Nov. 22. Once Lemelle did so, the victory that voucher supporters claimed started to evaporate.

Far from quashing the feds’ complaint, Lemelle held that the federal government should have some oversight when vouchers are used in those parishes where there still are longstanding desegregation cases.

Lemelle, appointed by President Bill Clinton, is overseeing a case that dates back to the administration of President Richard Nixon and bears the name of “William J. Dodd, Superintendent of Education,” as one of the defendants. Dodd’s term as state education superintendent ended in 1972.

It all gets a little confusing since many of the desegregation cases against various Louisiana school systems are pretty old, and we rarely hear about them unless some kind of problem arises.

Jefferson Parish, for example, had its “Dandridge case,” named after the plaintiff Lena Vern Dandridge, originally filed in the mid-1960s. It wasn’t until 2011 that the parish and the plaintiffs decided Jefferson Parish had reached “unitary” status, basically meaning racial disparities in its school system no longer existed.

But even that is in contention now, a task force overseeing the adherence to the 2011 agreement recently claimed the parish violated the settlement.

Other school systems in Louisiana have never reached settlements, however, and the Justice Department contends it has an interest in ensuring that private-school vouchers don’t worsen segregation in those systems.

Louisiana claims the vouchers don’t do that and points out that voucher recipients are predominantly African-American who are able move into better schools in more racially diverse environments.

Whether or not the voucher program results in the benefits the state touts, Lemelle made it clear he’s not just going to take the state’s word for it. Trust, but verify, in other words.

Lemelle told the two sides his court has an obligation “to take reasonable steps whereby the voucher program is not being used to promote segregation.

“The Constitution mandates it.”

Lemelle ordered the two sides to come up with a process through which the Justice Department can make sure vouchers don’t promote segregation.

But after Lemelle’s ruling, Jindal kept his game face on and boasted he wouldn’t let the federal government “handpick schools for Louisiana’s children.” And attorney Mike Kirk, who represented the state, also hinted Louisiana may continue to take a hard line.

“Even after we try as hard as we can, we may still be where I am today, which is taking the position that we oppose any new process,” Kirk said.

Correction: Last week, I wrote that jets fly “thousands of miles above the earth” when I should have said “thousands of feet.”

Dennis Persica writes about life in New Orleans each Thursday. His email address is dpersica@the advocate.com.