Coretta Pittman goes well beyond the 40 hours of service required of parents whose children attend the Good Shepherd School in New Orleans. Last year she did 100.
She borrows her mother’s car to take her son Elias, a second grader, to Good Shepherd each morning rather than sending him to a public school across the street. She chooses to work part-time so she can volunteer.
Without a voucher, Pittman would not be able to send Elias to the private Catholic school.
"I love the school," she said. "I wouldn’t switch him for anything."
Pittman fears that without the program Elias’s future could be snuffed out, like her nephew. She gets emotional when talking about his death. "Me and my mother raised my nephew from the time he came home from the hospital," Pittman said. "A year ago, he was killed. He was really smart. I think he could’ve done and been anything that he wanted to."
"I just wonder if he would’ve had somewhere like Good Shepherd to go, what could have become of him," she said. "And I’m just hoping that, I don’t want to ever have to wonder what could have become of my son."
When we find Elias he is sprinting across the playground. Baton in hand, he nearly barrels his cheering classmates over as he finishes his leg of a relay race. We summon him over. Wearing a huge smile, he tells us what he wants to be when he grows up.
"I like math and numbers," he says. "I want to be a mathematician and a doctor. I’d love to be a police. My auntie’s husband is a police."
Elias’s favorite part about school: "I get to talk to my friends."
"I don’t want to imagine what would happen if the program ended," his mother says. "It gives my son choices and it gives me hope."
The children at St. Leo the Great Catholic Central in New Orleans know more Spanish than I do. Kids from Ms. Margaret Mary’s third grade class stand to recite "Padre Nuestro"—the Lord’s Prayer—when we walk in. Smiling faces greet us with a resounding "good morning" in each classroom.
A portrait of Barack Obama hangs on the wall. The kids don’t know anything about the motions filed by the president’s Justice Department, which could block kids like them from attending schools like St. Leo—better schools than those in the public system they’ve left behind. They know that they love their teachers, and they are learning.
"What frustrates me—I keep hounding on it, but it’s true," said Ronald Briggs, chairman of the board at Good Shepherd. "The state of Louisiana saves money on the deal. They actually save $16 million a year."
"The taxpayer wins, the kids win, and the guardians win. So what’s the problem?"
As president, one of the first laws Obama signed killed a voucher program in Washington, D.C. Though Congress worked to reinstate the program, Obama has repeatedly tried to defund it in his budget proposals.
Now the Justice Department is going after Louisiana, first seeking a permanent injunction against the state scholarship program, which would put the fate of future voucher recipients in the hands of federal judges. Roughly 6,750 low-income students received a voucher this school year to escape failing schools.
"It’s political. It’s unfortunate. It’s wrong," said Ann Duplessis, the president of the Louisiana Federation for Children (LFC).
A lifelong Democrat, Duplessis opposed school choice for years until she began to question who the unions were really fighting for.
"It was more of actually looking at those kids," she said. "I have three girls and three grandchildren. I couldn’t bear the thought of them being in an environment that I didn’t know if they were going to come home that evening."
"You want to fight for your kids," she said. "You look in their faces—they’re children."
Duplessis’s mother was a public school teacher in the 1940s and ‘50s in some of the most prejudiced districts in the south. "The union was absolutely necessary to protect African-Americans’ jobs," she said.
But today it’s different. "Not that we’re saying we have overcome—but we have advanced," she said.
"The unions don’t work anymore for our teachers."
Duplessis served in the state senate for seven years, and was crucial in helping grow the charter school movement. She worked with another Democrat, Austin Badon, to pass the scholarship program for New Orleans in 2008.
The program has been under fire ever since. Unions protested the legislature, attempted recall elections, and sued the program all the way to the state supreme court. Nevertheless, a bipartisan bill expanded it statewide in 2012.
"Every year there’s another threat to the program, and we’re still here, year after year," said Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal in an interview with the Washington Free Beacon. "We survived everything else, just when the program was growing and everything was moving forward all of a sudden here comes the federal government."
The Justice Department says vouchers are "impeding desegregation," relying on laws from the 1950s that broke up segregated schools at the height of the Civil Rights movement. One minor problem: the DOJ can’t find the desegregation orders, which are the basis for its case.
In a filing over the weekend, the DOJ backed off its request for an injunction, seeking instead to require a lengthy review process of the program. Louisiana would have to provide information on every voucher application prior to awarding them.
If the government believed a voucher would disrupt the racial balance of a school, they could then request "the assistance" of the court to try to stop individual parent applications.
But Duplessis wonders why race is even an issue. The program operates by lottery, making it color blind.
"We’re at a state in history now, I find it offensive the idea that because you’re in an all black school it’s not as good," she said. "To me, that is so offensive. I would hope the DOJ would look at desegregating kids out of bad schools."
Hosanna Christian Academy in Baton Rouge has seen its demographics change dramatically since the introduction of the scholarship program. What used to be a majority white school five years ago is now 80 percent minority. Its rigorous curriculum has not changed at all.
"The idea that an all-white school or an all-black school is somehow better—it shouldn’t matter," Duplessis said.
"Let’s come into the 21st century here."
Children all across New Orleans travel to attend St. Leo, located on Abundance Street, an area ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Seventy-five percent of the children attend the school on scholarship.
Principal Carmel Mire said almost every house on Paris Avenue, an adjacent street, had an "X" on its window following the 2005 storm. The X’s marked the loss of a person or animal.
A foot and a half of water flooded the elementary school building, which was built by the church in 1926. All the classrooms in the middle school are on the second floor, so none were damaged.
"Every tragedy is a curse, or it’s a blessed event, it’s what you make it," said Briggs. "Katrina was a tragedy, but boy, it’s been a blessed event for a lot of things."
Jamie Roy said that being displaced from the storm exposed parents to better schools in neighboring states. People came back demanding change.
"Before Katrina, lower-income people only went to the schools in their neighborhood, no matter if they were failing or not," said Roy, the director of development at Good Shepherd. "That’s the choice that they had."
"It’s like if you lived on this block, and you could only go to this grocery store," Briggs said. "When you went over there on Monday the meat was rotten, when you went on Tuesday the milk was sour. That’s where you had to go.
"As soon as I got to this school they have been teaching me so well that every report card I’ve had A’s or B’s, I never failed a grade," said Brian Ridgley, 11, a junior at Good Shepherd.
"I really thank them for all that they teach me because I’m trying to go to Jesuit, and I wanna go to Ohio State, probably become a football player," he said.
The school will help him get there. The close-knit family of teachers and administrators allows Good Shepherd to keep tabs on their students after they graduate, providing a support system many of the children do not have. All 12 of the school’s inaugural graduating class of 2008 are now enrolled in college.
If the scholarship program disappeared, Brian said he would be disappointed. "I wouldn’t be able to get educated."
Niyla Carr, 10, feels the same way. "I would be pretty upset, too, because this is a good school, and I know everyone and they don’t allow bad things to happen."
As Dana Trahan, the upper school principal at Hosanna Christian Academy, enters the school lobby, the "rod of correction" hangs out of his back pocket. "Is it effective?" I ask the receptionist.
"Most of the time," she says.
The paddle seems mostly for show. At over six feet tall, Trahan is a looming presence, but his jovial manner makes it clear why his students love him. You can’t walk around the school courtyard without seeing a child trying to give an administrator a hug.
In Baton Rouge, parents don’t have many options. Upper class families move to the three best school districts—Zachary, Central, and Baker—to avoid putting their kids in the East Baton Rouge (EBR) Parish.
Hosanna offers parents another choice. Of its 660 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, 470 receive a voucher, making it the largest scholarship school in the state.
The school’s philosophy revolves around religious instruction, discipline, and heavy parental involvement. Small class sizes allow for a family-like atmosphere, and students falling behind receive special attention after school.
Angela Byrd said she wouldn’t send her kids, Eric and Erion, back to EBR, a district whose superintendent has transferred students from performing schools to failing ones to boost their grades.
"Academically, Erion was struggling," Byrd said. "Now she’s doing much better, she’s learning study skills."
"We have kids who say, ‘Oh there was always fighting in the classrooms, and the administration was always yelling, and we felt intimidated. Now we sit in class and learn,’" Trahan said. "To hear those stories, that is what is joyful about this program and about our ability to present them with an environment where they can feel safe and feel ok about learning everyday."
The school is now at full capacity, but school Dean Russell Marino doesn’t mind the extra work.
"All we know is this: God has blessed us by allowing us to reach our community to a much greater degree with the scholarship program," he said.
"We are just blessed to have the opportunity to touch a lot of families in this town that can’t afford a private school, but now they can come and get the benefits."
When he visited New Orleans a little over a week ago, Obama did not stop to tour a scholarship school, despite requests from Gov. Jindal.
"I talked to him briefly during his visit," Jindal said. "We’ve invited him several times."
The parties will meet in court on Nov. 22. The judge may rule whether parents of scholarship students can be represented as defendants in the case, a position the Justice Department has strongly opposed.
"If the president doesn’t have time to visit schools, at least send the attorney general before you file a lawsuit," Jindal said. "Come see for yourself the lives you’re disrupting, the people you’re harming."
There is no doubt the children would be happy to see him. Walking into a first grade class, the teacher asks them to say hello to their guest.
"Welcome to New Orleans!" they yell. "Welcome to Good Shepherd!"
"Ms. Harrington is from Washington, D.C." Roy says.
"Oh! Say hi to Obama!"