Education department again turning down records request

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — After saying last August

that a public records request would be fulfilled, Louisiana's education

department

is again refusing to provide The Associated Press with records on

how schools were chosen to participate in Gov. Bobby Jindal's

new statewide voucher program.

The Associated Press requested the records on June 12. The department initially rejected the request on Aug. 3. However, a

spokesman for Education Superintendent John White later told an AP capital bureau reporter that the records request would

be fulfilled in September — after the final voucher enrollment numbers were tallied.

But, on Monday, White said in a letter that

the request for records, emails or other communications was "overly

broad." He

also said records pertaining to the development of policies or

deliberation among managers and staff are not public records.

"It was never our intention to provide documents that went against the advice of counsel and were not deemed public record,"

Erin Bendily, a deputy secretary in the department, said in an interview Monday.

The AP's June 12 request cited the state

constitution and state law regarding public records. The request was for

"any and

all records, emails or other communications pertaining to the

development of criteria used in selecting schools eligible to

accept students in the Student Scholarships for Educational

Excellence Program or associated with the voucher/scholarship

program created under Act 2 of the just-ended legislative session;

and any and all such records, emails and communications

regarding individual schools accepted or rejected for the

program."

The department's initial rejection came more

than eight weeks later, on a Friday evening, Aug. 3. The department did

not cite

open records laws in its denial. Rather, department spokeswoman

Sarah Mulhearn's email cited two court cases involving disputes

in which the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office was denied

documents from the Public Service Commission and the Department

of Insurance.

The News-Star newspaper in Monroe has a lawsuit pending against the Department of Education over a public information request

regarding the voucher program. That suit has not yet gone to trial.

More than 4,900 students from poorly performing public schools have taken advantage of the state's newly expanded voucher

program, which uses government money to pay their private school tuition.

The voucher program began on a limited basis

in New Orleans early in Jindal's first term. Jindal backers pushed a

statewide

expansion of the program through the House and Senate in the early

days of the Legislative session. Backers tout it as a means

of allowing low- and middle-income students to escape bad public

schools.

Opponents, who are challenging the program

in court, say it diverts money needed for public education. They also

have raised

questions about the quality of some of the 117 private schools in

the program and whether some schools chosen to receive hundreds

of thousands in tax dollars have adequate facilities, teaching

staff and curricula.