Gov. Bobby Jindal is battling to protect Louisiana’s fast-growing school voucher program from an all-out attack by the Obama administration.
The Justice Department claims the state’s private schools are defying a decades-old federal desegregation order.
In November, a judge ruled the Department could monitor Louisiana's voucher program, even though 90 percent of the 6,750 students who use the Louisiana Scholarship Program are minority, and 85 percent are black.
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The Louisiana Scholarship Program originated in New Orleans in 2008 and Jindal expanded it to other parts of the state in 2012. Now 126 nonpublic schools participate in the program.
Eligible students must come from a family whose income does not exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty threshold. Students must be entering kindergarten or must transfer from a public school that has a poor rating from the state, according to the Louisiana Department of Education.
The Justice Department sued the state in August, first seeking a permanent injunction to stop the program. That request for an injunction was later halted and the DOJ dropped the lawsuit, but the department continues to seek a broader role in monitoring the program, including requiring a 45-day review before each student who receives a voucher scholarship can begin school.
Now Gov. Jindal is pushing back against the federal intervention in his state's educational system.
Jindal filed a 38-page response to the ruling earlier in January, asking a judge to overturn a 1976 "white flight" case that prohibited giving public funds to all-white private schools. In the filing, the state noted that private schools must be certified by the Justice Department as nondiscriminatory before allowing voucher students to enroll.
"The state strongly believes that it is equally wrong to block scholarship awards to eligible children of other races, but there is a special irony in the fact that the United States would inflict this harm on so many black children and families, all in the name of Brown v. Board of Education," attorneys wrote in the filing.
Jindal decried the Justice Department's overreach in a statement, noting he was "shocked" by the DOJ's attempt to seek racial composition profiles of private schools that take voucher students.
"President Obama’s Department of Justice has admitted it cannot prove that Louisiana school choice is violating desegregation efforts, yet it continues to seek the ability to tell a parent their child cannot escape a failing school because their child is not the 'right' race," Jindal said.
"The Department of Justice proposal reeks of federal government intrusion and proves the people in Washington running our federal government are more interested in skin color than they are in education," Jindal said.
Some education policy experts say the Justice Department's involvement in Louisiana can only harm the very children who need help the most.
"To be able to step in and pre-approve a voucher program is breathtaking federal overreach," says Lindsey Burke, who analyzes education policy for the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
"The Department of Justice is now basically trying to micromanage the program to death," she said. "The federal government now wants to pre-approve every single voucher in Louisiana. It's hard to even wrap your head around the audacity of Washington, trying to [require schools] to provide information on every student who applies for a voucher and then have the authority to disapprove it."
The whole point of desegregation orders decades ago was to ensure that students from every background had equal educational opportunity, Burke told Newsmax.
Vouchers, she added, act as an equalizing pathway to that end.
"So many students, particularly low-income and disadvantaged students, are assigned to schools that fail to meet their needs and in some cases fail to be adequately safe," Burke said. "This program is an attempt to provide parents in Louisiana to with some say in where and how their children are educated. For many, the government-assigned, government-run public system is not meeting their needs."
Burke was not alone in criticizing the DOJ's motive in its filing. Former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, speaking last September at the National Press Club before the lawsuit was dropped, offered that the program had helped to increase achievement in those students who are participating, Politico reported.
"This is purely political, perhaps payback for political elections of the past," Bush said. "I have no idea why they have made this decision, but I do know for a fact that we need to transform our education system state by state to assure that more than just 25 or 30 percent of our kids are college- or career-ready."
Bush's objections were reiterated by House Speaker John Boehner
in a letter signed by other lawmakers and sent to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Boehner noted that 18 states along with the District of Columbia currently were participating in some kind of voucher program, with about 250,000 students enrolled nationally.
"The department's allegation that the Louisiana Program could impede the desegregation process is extremely troubling and paradoxical in nature," Boehner wrote. "If the DOJ is successful in shutting down this valuable school choice initiative, not only will students across Louisiana be forced to remain in failing schools, but it could have a reverberating effect and cause other states to feel pressured to shut down similar initiatives that provide countless children the opportunity to receive a better education."
Whether measurable achievement has occurred in the voucher schools is open to debate, but parents of voucher students in Louisiana seem satisfied with the program. A study
released last March by a school choice advocacy group, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, found more than 90 percent said they were pleased with their child's new school.
And at least one study of the program by the University of Arkansas's Department of Education Reform found that it has positive effects on racial integration.
Authors Anna J. Egalite and Jonathan N. Mills noted that voucher student transfers "overwhelmingly improve integration in the public schools students leave (the sending schools), bringing the racial composition of the schools closer to that of the broader communities in which they are located."
They added that in those districts where the DOJ is concerned about desegregation violations, the Louisiana Scholarship Program transfers
"improve integration in both the sending schools and the private schools participating students attend (receiving schools)."
Burke of the Heritage Foundation said she sees a "pattern of hostility" directed at voucher programs around the country to "disrupt and eliminate" private school choice options.
"Louisiana is not the only place where we have seen the administration step in and try to prevent school choice from proliferating," Burke noted. "Every year we've seen this administration try to eliminate funding for the wildly success D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program."
That program has been in place in Washington, D.C., for nine years and has awarded close to 5,000 scholarships to mainly black students who may take their vouchers and pay to attend higher performing private schools.
The Obama administration has been somewhat open to charter schools, but those are public schools, Burke noted, adding that much of the fealty toward protecting the power base of public schools is rooted in "union labor loyalty."
"You have the teacher unions that throw tremendous amounts of money in support of this administration," Burke said.
"The teacher unions have been blockers every step of the way," she added. "When you look at the history of school choice, you see the unions always trying to put up barriers to school choice and now they have an administration that is supportive of that effort. This is a direct threat to union power — kids choosing private schools that are autonomous."
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