Attorney General Eric Holder testified on Friday that the Justice Department (DOJ) never intended to stop the Louisiana school voucher program, despite his agency’s lawsuit that requested a permanent injunction against school choice scholarships.
Under questioning before a House appropriations subcommittee, Rep. Andy Harris (R., Md.) got into a heated exchange after asking Holder if the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division was responsible for the lawsuit "against" the state’s scholarship program, which allows students to flee failing schools.
"You buy into a premise that’s not correct," Holder said. "That was not the division that was doing anything of that nature in Louisiana."
"We were seeking to get from the state of Louisiana information about their voucher program," he said. "[We] never, ever took the position that we were against vouchers."
Harris questioned further. "Is that the division that went to court in Louisiana to ask for that information?" he said. "These are not complicated questions, Mr. Attorney General."
"What I was saying is that we never sought to do anything with the voucher program as much as to get information—and which a federal judge ultimately agreed with us," Holder said. "And we worked out something with the state. It’s a talking point that Gov. [Bobby] Jindal and others—I guess you—think makes good political fodder, but it’s totally inconsistent with the fact."
Harris disputed that characterization of his efforts.
"I actually care about the education of children as Gov. Jindal does," Harris said. "Mr. Attorney General you used federal money to go into a state court to try to hinder, hamper, disable a school voucher program—the majority of which goes to minority students. So I’m just going to take issue with your characterization of a talking point because we shouldn’t use children, especially minority children—you can shake your head all you want, maybe you disagree that we shouldn’t use minority children as wedges."
Holder again repeated that the DOJ took "no position with regard to the voucher program."
"We only sought information about how the program was being run and how it affected a longstanding statewide anti-discrimination settlement that had been in place for years," he said.
However, the DOJ did request a permanent injunction against the program last August, which would have required all vouchers to be pre-approved by a federal judge.
The first line of the lawsuit said that the DOJ wanted to put a stop to "any" vouchers:
The United States asks this Court to permanently enjoin the State of Louisiana from awarding any school vouchers (‘vouchers’ or ‘scholarships’) to students attending school in districts operating under federal desegregation orders unless and until the state receives authorization from the appropriate federal court overseeing the applicable desegregation case.
The DOJ ultimately dropped its injunction request, but still insisted on federal oversight of the program that Jindal warned could kill the program through red tape.
Jindal said he hoped Holder was under oath when he said the DOJ was not trying to stop the program.
"If filing a lawsuit isn't taking a position on an issue, I don't know what is," he said in a statement to the Washington Free Beacon.
"Eric Holder and the Department of Justice are trying to impede children who haven’t had access to a great education from getting the chance to go to better schools," Jindal said. "In Louisiana, we refuse to accept that any child should be forced to be trapped in a failing school."
The American Federation for Children also responded to Holder’s comments, which were under oath, saying that the attorney general is trying to "rewrite history."
"Under his direction, the DOJ attempted to block students from obtaining access to Louisiana’s popular and effective voucher program," said Kevin Chavous, executive counsel to the American Federation for Children. "But, now recognizing his testimony [Friday], Attorney General Holder should amend DOJ’s filing with the federal court in Louisiana to reflect his support of the Louisiana Scholarship Program."
"Further, based on the attorney general’s testimony, it is reasonable to expect that DOJ will make no future efforts to try to enjoin these school choice programs because the attorney general said that was not his intent," he said.