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Louisiana’s voucher program grabs national spotlight

30th September 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Harden
Contributing Writer

Gov. Piyush Jindal recently took his discontent to Wash­ington D.C. after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder filed a lawsuit in August against Louisiana in an attempt to prohibit the use of the school voucher program for students who would otherwise be attending public schools in 22 parishes that remain under the federal desegregation orders.

Jindal, joined by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, demanded in front of the nation on Sept. 18 the lawsuit be dropped.

On the same day, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT) put forth a response to Jindal’s defense of the program in a news release, saying that despite Jindal’s rhetoric on choice and supporting children, “choice and vouchers don’t improve student achievement, are often discriminatory, and deny children a high-quality learning experience that ensures they have the critical thinking and problem solving skills they need to succeed.”

LFT President Steve Monag­han said in the release that the state has failed to provide information to the U.S. Justice Department, leaving the agency with no alternative.

On Friday, Sept. 20, a meeting between the two sides was convened by the federal court during which Louisiana agreed to provide demographic information previously withheld.

The state also agreed to analyze and provide information on the voucher program’s impact on desegregation efforts by Nov. 7.

On Tuesday, September 24., The Goldwater Institute filed a motion on behalf of Louisiana families, asking a federal district court judge to dismiss the Justice Department’s challenge, and also asking the court to allow them to join the state in defending the voucher program.

Also on Tuesday, a letter was sent from Deputy Assistant Attorney General Peter J. Kadzik to House Speaker John A. Boehner, in which Kadzik wrote:  “We are pleased that Louisiana finally has agreed to provide the necessary information … it is only regrettable that the Depart­ment had to resort to court involvement in this case in order to obtain it.”

The Justice Department’s filing alleges that in some cases, the voucher program leads to more segregation, and will likely be heard later this month. Earlier this year, Federal District Judge Ivan Lemelle ruled that the voucher program violates a 38-year-old desegregation agreement in Tangipahoa Parish.

That was after the Tangipahoa Parish School Board filed suit in U.S. District court earlier this year asking for injunctive relief, alleging that both legislative acts dealing with the voucher program interfered with the district’s ability to comply with the desegregation order.

The voucher program has persistently faced legal battles.

In May, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that the voucher program is unconstitutional, upholding an earlier state district court ruling that the state constitution forbids using money in the state’s Minimum Foundation Program for private school tuition.

The program, also referred to as the scholarship program, gives public money to private and parochial schools. For eligibility, families must meet certain income requirements as well as have children who are attending public schools assigned a state-calculated C, D, or F letter grade.

Jonathan Riches, a lawyer with the Goldwater Institute, called the Justice Department’s position “a little perverse,” arguing that the program provides more equitable educational opportunities for minorities – also largely the purpose of the desegregation orders. About 91 percent of participating students are minorities, Riches said.

Jindal and voucher supporters argue that the program promotes parental choice, and offers kids a way out of failing schools they would not have otherwise. Opponents say they’d rather see investment in public schools, and express concern that the program lacks accountability and violates the separation of church and state by giving taxpayer dollars to schools that teach creationism and beliefs not rooted in science. 

The Advocate reported that while in Washington, Jindal took to the national stage to deride the Obama administration for trying to stop the voucher program, calling the administration “cynical, immoral, hypocritical, and more.”

According to The Advocate’s report, “The Obama administration argued that vouchers have negatively affected racial demographics in schools in 13 of the districts thus far and, as a result, harmed the desegregation pro­gress. The contention is that expanding the voucher program could further skew racial demographics and create additional racial segregation.”

Riches said that the program is written so that compliance with desegregation orders is required. He also noted that by nature the program is “race neutral,” using only household income and current school ratings as prerequisites.

Monaghan said the state’s refusal to provide requested information has been a constant, and has led to numerous lawsuits.

Jindal called Holder’s lawsuit “absurd.”

“Constitution and law have been consistently treated as mere suggestions. Then, vilification of those who dare to challenge, followed by outrage when the courts sends a strong rebuke has been the pattern,” Monaghan said. “The only difference this time is the act has been taken to the national stage.”

Monaghan said that while the desegregation filing was not the union’s fight specifically, they were not surprised at Jindal’s fist-shaking attempts in Washington. He said they also weren’t surprised that Jindal was trying to create suspicions of an “unholy alliance” by accusing the Justice Department of being more interested in doing favors for teacher unions than helping students.

Riches said that based on his conversation with dozens of parents and students, every single one had a compelling story about overcoming adversity and then being very happy with the results after becoming part of the voucher program. The vouchers are those students’ “only chance at a decent education,” Riches said. He said the families would be distraught if the program was no longer available.

“This case is actually very simple, despite efforts and talking points that paint it as an assault on poor children,” Monaghan said. “The Louisiana Department of Education had an obligation to address specific questions presented by the U.S. Justice Depart­ment because it could have an impact on desegregation agreements in a number of Louisiana school districts. The state failed to provide the information to the Justice Department, leaving the Justice Department with no alternative but to file amendments to the existing lawsuit.”

This article originally published in the September 30, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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