The Goldwater Institute filed an appeal in federal court on Thursday to allow parents in Louisiana to plead their case in the fight with the Justice Department (DOJ) over the state’s voucher program.
The nonprofit organization contends that parents have the right to defend the state’s scholarship program, which allowed their kids to flee failing public schools and has been under attack from the Obama administration for months.
"The Justice Department continues to threaten educational opportunities for children who need them desperately," said Clint Bolick, vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute, in a statement. "It is outrageous that the Justice Department is blocking the courtroom doors for those who have the most at stake: the families themselves."
Along with the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), the Goldwater Institute first filed to intervene in the case in September, representing four families who have children enrolled in the program. Thousands of low-income students receive vouchers averaging $5,245 each year to attend private schools.
The U.S. district court for the Eastern District of Louisiana denied their request last month, arguing that the parents no longer have an interest in the case since the DOJ dropped its request for a permanent injunction against the program.
The Goldwater Institute contends the program is still at risk, and is now taking its case to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in an attempt to let families testify to the benefits of school vouchers.
A legal battle between the Obama administration and Louisiana has been brewing since August. The DOJ first requested a permanent injunction on the basis that the program "impedes desegregation." They requested future vouchers to be handed out by a federal judge.
The DOJ then changed its strategy last month, opting instead for a "process of review" over the program, which would force Louisiana to provide data on every student applicant 45 days before vouchers are awarded.
Based on the information provided, the government could then request "the assistance" of the court to try to block individual parent applications if they believed a voucher would disrupt the racial balance of a school.
The scholarship program awards vouchers by lottery; 90 percent of recipients are racial minorities. Over 93 percent of parents say they are satisfied with their child’s new school.
A federal judge ruled in favor of the DOJ in late November, allowing federal oversight over the distribution of vouchers, ordering both parties to come up with a plan in 60 days. Gov. Bobby Jindal (R.) has said the DOJ’s preferred process could "regulate the program to death."
The Goldwater Institute says the federal government is now a "bigger threat than ever."
"While DOJ has withdrawn its original motion to the court seeking to cease the program altogether, it urges a new procedure whereby the Justice Department will have 45 days after each Louisiana child is approved for the program to bless or deny that child's admittance into the program," the group said. "In essence, the program may now be regulated out of existence."
The Goldwater Institute warned that allowing federal oversight over the program could also set a dangerous precedent for school choice across the nation. There are over 200 school districts that remain under desegregation orders, which is the basis for the DOJ’s case.
"If an appeals court does not strike down this district court blessing, school choice programs throughout the country could be similarly imperiled," they said.
Attorney General Eric Holder was in Louisiana on Thursday for a ceremony for a new U.S. attorney in New Orleans, but did not schedule any visits to scholarship schools while he was there.
"We appreciate the Attorney General’s visit to our state, but he would be remiss if he leaves Louisiana without visiting scholarship schools or meeting with the parents," Jindal said in a statement. "The Attorney General is leading a department that is trying to force thousands of poor children back into failing schools."
"Instead of giving parents a voice in the legal challenge, Eric Holder’s Department of Justice filed a motion to muzzle parents and not allow them to voice their concerns," he said. "That’s shameful. These parents deserve to have their voices heard, but Eric Holder is ignoring them."