NEW ORLEANS — Last month, school-choice advocates in Louisiana were jubilant when they learned that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had dropped a lawsuit that sought to curtail the state’s school-voucher program.
But on Nov. 20, a federal court agreed that the highest criminal investigation and enforcement agency in the country could oversee voucher assignments in the state-run program, stirring fears about the future of a promising initiative that supporters say has liberated thousands of children from a broken public-school system.
The latest skirmish in the battle over the Louisiana Scholarship Program has revived the debate over the impact of government-funded school vouchers.
Teachers’ unions and other opponents of vouchers have argued that such initiatives are bad for public schools in poor neighborhoods because they siphon public money and the best students from underfunded public institutions.
But in its Aug. 23 legal challenge, the DOJ provided a different argument. It alleged that the transfer of students from public to private schools skewed the racial balance of some schools, possibly violating the terms of a standing court order that resolved a 1975 desegregation case. The department sought to bar the participation of students seeking to leave specific public schools where racial integration remains an ongoing concern.
However, many of the private schools participating in the program are Catholic, and they already must certify that they do not discriminate based on race. The campaign to defend the program has been spearheaded by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and state school-reform groups.
The Justice Department, stung by broad criticism of its legal challenge to the voucher program, has said that its request for federal oversight is not an “attack” on the Louisiana initiative and that only some schools require scrutiny.
But Jindal and school-choice advocacy groups have argued otherwise.
“Disguised by the Department of Justice as simply a new ‘process’ for the state, the federal government’s latest brief is full of daggers that would place a tremendous burden on the state and, in turn, on parents who want to take their children out of a failing school,” Jindal charged, in response to the DOJ’s latest plan to monitor voucher assignments by collecting data on students and schools participating in the program.
On Dec. 5, Jindal noted that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder would be in the state, and he invited him to visit the private, mostly Catholic, schools in the voucher program and meet with parents.
“President Obama and the attorney general have the advantage of enough personal wealth to send their children to great schools. Good for them; I don’t begrudge them a bit. But the simple fact is that every child in America deserves the opportunity to get a great education,” said Jindal in a statement.
Process Hinders Progress
Ann Duplessis, president of the Louisiana Federation for Children, the state chapter of a national group that advocates for parental choice in education, told the Register that the DOJ’s proposed effort to collect extensive data on schools and students would “create an oversight process that bogs down our ability to get parents into the program.”
“We have a short window of time when parents apply to a school. They prioritize their selection of schools, and the [state education] department then approves that and handles all the minutia,” explained Duplessis, a former state legislator who once opposed school vouchers, but has emerged as a leading advocate for school choice.
“Adding another layer to the process could cause an issue: Families wouldn’t know where their kids are going to school until shortly before the school year starts. That is how they plan to kill the program — by creating red tape in the oversight process.”
Duplessis, who is black and the mother of three, noted that past efforts to promote desegregation in schools were motivated by efforts to increase black students’ access to the same resources available to their white peers.
Today, however, she suggested that the DOJ’s concerns were misplaced.
“The DOJ can’t see that vouchers can provide the outcome they want, and what matters is the quality of the schools. If the school is racially mixed and it is still failing kids, it won’t help black students.”
In 2008, the voucher program began as a pilot project in New Orleans. In the 2012-2013 school year, it expanded across the Bayou State and uses a lottery system to select pre-approved applicants.
In 2012-2013, 4,700 students were accepted into the program. That number represented almost half the pool of approved applicants — students whose families reported incomes below 250% of the poverty line and were in public schools that received a grade of C or worse from the state. In F-rated schools, half of the students are performing at below grade level, according to state tests.
This year, about 12,000 students applied for vouchers, and 6,750 students landed a scholarship. Voucher advocates report strong parental satisfaction, with most participating families led by single mothers.
Jan Lancaster, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, told the Register that 34 of the archdiocese’s 80 schools participate in the state voucher program at either the secondary or elementary level, with a total of 3,241 students receiving state-funded "Scholarships for Educational Excellence."
Assessing Racial Balance
In late August, Jindal learned that the Justice Department had filed suit to curtail the voucher program, alleging that it interfered with federal oversight of desegregation orders in a number of Louisiana parishes.
The Washington Post editorial board echoed the view of many critics, who challenged the DOJ’s justification for intervening in a state program that had survived repeated legal challenges.
“Since most of the students using vouchers are black, it is, as Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White pointed out to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, ‘a little ridiculous’ to argue that the departure of mostly black students to voucher schools would make their home school systems less white,” stated the editorial board, which noted that the state program is required to follow with color-blind policies.
The Post editorial board also noted research findings that contradicted the DOJ’s allegation that the voucher program threatened racial integration in the public-school system.
Indeed, after the DOJ filed its lawsuit, the state of Louisiana hired Christine Rossell, a Boston University political scientist, to evaluate the impact of education reform, and Rossell concluded that in the majority of the districts subject to ongoing desegregation oversight, the movement of students actually improved or did not affect racial balance. In those districts where the program had a negative impact, the effect was “miniscule,” Rossell reported.
On Nov. 15, the program’s supporters applauded the news that the DOJ had withdrawn its petition for “injunctive relief,” but the celebrations were short-lived. The court signaled that the federal attorneys still wanted to review voucher assignments.
In papers filed with the court, the DOJ sought to establish a “process to ensure that the state provides necessary information and complies with its desegregation obligations.”
On Nov. 20, a federal judge ruled that a 1975 case, which addressed previous state efforts to circumvent desegregation orders, gave the DOJ authority to review voucher assignments.
“The court has an obligation,” said Judge Ivan Lemelle, “to take reasonable steps in the process whereby the voucher program is not being used to promote segregation.”
However, he warned that the DOJ could not hamper a school-choice program that had been found to advance racial balance in public schools, as Rossell and other researchers had documented.
Program Continues, Oversight Starts
The federal judge gave both sides two months to reach an agreement on the oversight process. The decision is not expected to affect voucher assignments for the 2013-2014 school year.
Lemelle asked DOJ attorneys to offer preliminary guidance on the oversight effort, and they proposal a 45-day delay from the time vouchers are assigned to when families would be notified.
According to the Times-Picayune, federal attorney Anurima Bhargava said "the Justice Department needed data about voucher assignments before parents are informed of their children’s school placement, because lawyers don’t want to be in the position of removing children from their schools if they challenge an assignment.”
That demand, critics charge, reflected the DOJ’s efforts to avoid blame for disrupting a promising voucher program that is poised to incorporate a growing number of needy children.
Eric Lewis of Louisiana’s Black Alliance for Educational Options, a key advocate for parents who support school vouchers, argues that it’s past time for the Justice Department to set aside its concern with monitoring racial imbalance and focus on better educational outcomes for disadvantaged children.
“I am from Louisiana, and I grew up in a school district with an open desegregation case. But most kids in the voucher program are black, and the schools that participate in the program have to provide evidence that they don’t discriminate,” Lewis told the Register.
For now, state education officials plan to move ahead with the first phase of the application process for the 2014-2015 school year.
“The Department [of Justice] will continue to operate the Louisiana Scholarship Program as written in state law,” Barry Landry, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Education, told the Register.
Starting in January, parents will begin submitting applications to participating scholarship schools or online, with Round 1 of the lottery being held in April.
Landry said, “Once scholarship awards have been made, students have until the first week of school to enroll.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.