A federal court has rejected attempts by the Justice Department to scrap Louisiana’s school choice program, ending a months-long battle between the state and the Obama administration.
U.S. District Court Judge Ivan Lemelle ruled Tuesday evening that the Louisiana Scholarship Program can go on as planned, as long as the state provides information to the DOJ on vouchers 10 days prior to their award.
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The judge did not grant the DOJ’s request to be able to deny vouchers on an individual basis. The vouchers are used by the families of students who attend failing public schools to pay for tuition at private institutions.
Gov. Bobby Jindal (R.) called the ruling a "win for children and their parents."
"Today is a great day for school choice and access to an opportunity for a better education for all Louisianians," he said. "I am pleased that the court rejected President Obama’s Justice Department’s attempt to establish a review period where bureaucrats in Washington would be able to reject scholarship awards solely because the child is not the ‘right’ skin color."
The ruling rejected the DOJ’s request for a 45-day review period for all vouchers and will not disrupt the program, simply shortening the second round of scholarship awards by 10 days. The first round of vouchers for the 2014-2015 school year are scheduled for distribution April 21.
Attorney General Eric Holder also praised the ruling, and reiterated his claim that the DOJ was only "seeking information" on the voucher program.
"We welcome the court’s order as it rejects the state’s bid to resist providing even the most basic information about how Louisiana’s voucher program will affect school desegregation efforts," Holder said. "This ruling ought to resolve, once and for all, the unnecessary dispute initiated by the state’s refusal to provide data."
The DOJ had requested a permanent injunction against the program last August, which would have required all vouchers to be pre-approved by a federal judge.
Louisiana will have to provide the federal government with data on applicants, including name, race, student I.D. number, address, and the public school district the student would be fleeing. The DOJ can challenge whether a school is "impeding desegregation" under the 1975 court ruling Brumfield v. Dodd, an authority the agency has always held.
Additionally, on Thursday the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an earlier ruling by Judge Lemelle that blocked parents of voucher students from intervening in the case. Lemelle had sided with the DOJ, which filed a motion last fall arguing that parents whose kids have benefited from the program had no legal standing to become defendants in the case. The government said the parents’ interest in the lawsuit was "remote."
The appeals court ruled that parents do have an interest in any lawsuit that "threatens a ‘prospective interference with’ educational opportunities." While the five families who sued to intervene in the case will not be heard due to the case’s conclusion this week, the Fifth Circuit ruling will allow parents to become defendants in the future should the DOJ challenge the program again.
"The purported aim of the United States is to enforce the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment," the Fifth Circuit Court said. "If any group can be described as within the zone of interest protected by that clause, surely it is these mostly minority parents who believe that the best way to ensure equal protection of the laws is to give them the opportunity—along with other parents who live in poverty and whose children are in failing schools—to send their children to better schools."
Jindal said Louisiana would resist further attacks on the program, which primarily serves minority students who attend C, D, or F rated schools. Nearly 7,000 students received vouchers this school year.
"We have learned from this lawsuit the potential dangers of federal government overreach in K-12 education," he said. "We will remain vigilant that the Department of Justice will not take advantage of the information sharing process and use it as means to further obstruct school choice. We will continue to oppose any attempts to impede children and their parents from being able to escape failing schools and have access to better educational opportunities."
School choice organizations also praised the ruling, and vowed to continue to fight for the program.
"This decision takes a lot of the teeth out of the Department of Justice’s original efforts to block the Louisiana Scholarship Program, and puts in place safeguards to both the success of scholarship students and students as a whole in Louisiana," said Kara Kerwin, president of The Center for Education Reform.
"Students should not be trapped in a failing or underperforming school simply because of the color of their skin or the neighborhood they live in," said Ann Duplessis, president of the Louisiana Federation for Children. "We remain vigilant and will continue to fight to ensure Louisiana's low-income parents do not become the victims of purely political moves."