DOJ Continues Pursuit of Federal Oversight Over Louisiana Voucher Program

Jindal: Obama administration ‘more interested in skin color than in education’

Louisana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R.) / AP
January 8, 2014

The Justice Department (DOJ) and Louisiana filed separate proposals for information sharing on the state’s school voucher program Tuesday evening, as the Obama administration continues to seek federal approval of each scholarship awarded to a child fleeing a failing school.

Complying with a court order issued on Nov. 22, Louisiana laid out its case for the state’s scholarship program in a 38-page filing, urging the federal court to rule against the DOJ’s proposed process that will "burden the state with impossible obligations and raises serious federalism concerns."

Louisiana is offering a three-year review period for its program, which provides scholarships to low-income minority children to escape failing public schools. The state has already provided the U.S. government with data on its program for the previous two school years, and proposed a final retroactive review of the scholarships awarded in the 2014-15 academic year.

Once the review period is over the case would be dismissed unless the DOJ can prove the program violates federal desegregation orders.

However, the DOJ seeks an onerous process that would require the state to provide information on every voucher applicant prior to his award,  which would disrupt the program and open the door for lawsuits on any voucher the federal government disapproved of on the grounds of a child’s race.

"President Obama’s Department of Justice is continuing its attempt to red-tape and regulate the Louisiana Scholarship Program to death," Gov. Bobby Jindal (R.) said in a statement. "The department’s request for a 45-day review period for every scholarship award shows the Justice Department believes bureaucrats in Washington know better than Louisiana parents."

The DOJ has been suing Louisiana since August, first seeking a permanent injunction against the program on the grounds that it "impedes desegregation." The DOJ has since dropped its injunction request, but is still demanding federal oversight of the program to ensure the "racial balance" of public schools are not disturbed.

A federal judge ruled in favor of the DOJ in November, ordering the two parties to come up with a review process for the voucher program. That process, however, cannot be "so arduous it scuttles" the program, district court Judge Ivan Lemelle said.

The DOJ’s proposed review process, which it documented in its 7-page filing on Thursday, would impose 13 deadlines on the state and require a 45-day review period where the federal government would have the opportunity to pre-approve all student vouchers.

Louisiana said that the review period would "disrupt, if not destroy" the program, eliminate its second round of the lottery process, and open the doors to litigation for every voucher award the federal government disapproved of.

The basis of the DOJ’s case relies on the 1975 decision Brumfield v. Dodd, which prohibits public school funding to go to private schools that discriminate on the basis of race. Louisiana argues that private schools participating in the program already must meet the requirements under Brumfield.

"The Scholarship program requires participating schools to surrender control over their admissions policy for a certain subset of their seats," the state filing said. "The schools must take all comers, regardless of race, and they have no control over which eligible students receive awards."

The DOJ is also requesting Brumfield compliance forms and applications for private schools, which includes the "student enrollment, by race, at the school for the current school year."

Jindal said asking for the racial composition of all private school students is "frightening."

"I am also shocked to learn that the Justice Department is now asking for the state to provide an analysis of the racial composition of our state’s private schools," he said. "The federal government’s new request is a frightening overreach of the federal government and shows it knows no bounds."

Based on the information provided, the DOJ could then "raise any concerns" about individual vouchers that they believe are inconsistent with desegregation orders.

"If the parties cannot reach amicable resolution, the parties respectfully request that this court adjudicate any disagreements under the auspices of this case," the DOJ said.

Louisiana said any voucher the DOJ objected to would result in litigation, because "the state will never voluntarily accede to depriving an eligible child of an award that child receives through the lottery to attend an eligible participating school (and certainly not on account of that child’s race)."

The state said the DOJ’s tactic would impede the education of minority students, as 90 percent of voucher recipients are minority. Over 85 percent are African-American.

"The state strongly believes that it is equally wrong to block scholarship awards to eligible children of other races," the state’s filing said, "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."

Jindal said Washington is more concerned about skin color than quality education.

"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," he 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."