Last Modified: Wednesday, November 20, 2013 4:11 PM
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A judge hears arguments Friday over whether a federal court desegregation order dating back to the 1970s requires the state to obtain court approval before issuing private school tuition vouchers.
Justice officials say they are concerned that vouchers — aimed at helping lower-income families get their children out of low-performing public schools — could alter the racial balance in districts under longstanding desegregation orders. The state says evidence shows the voucher program has a negligible effect at worst, and appears to slightly enhance desegregation.
Gov. Bobby Jindal pushed the statewide voucher plan through the Legislature in 2012, ending decades of success by opponents who had long argued that vouchers drain badly needed money from public schools.
Arguments before and after had largely centered on the funding and effectiveness of voucher schools. Then, in an August filing, the Justice Department filed a motion in the case of Brumfield v. Dodd, a school desegregation lawsuit filed in 1971 that resulted in a 1975 desegregation order governing state spending on public schools.
The Justice Department said Louisiana has given vouchers this school year to students in at least 22 of 34 districts remaining under various federal desegregation orders. In court papers, the department said Louisiana distributed vouchers in 2012-13 to almost 600 public school students in districts that are still under such orders, and that many of those vouchers impeded the desegregation process.
It sought an injunction blocking the issuance of future vouchers in districts under desegregation orders unless the state first obtained permission from the appropriate federal court.
Jindal quickly went on the attack in state and national forums, accusing the Obama administration of trying to deny disadvantaged children a chance at quality education and thwart parents' ability to choose successful schools.
Justice attorneys have since backed away, for now, from seeking an injunction, but are still pushing to have the court's role in the voucher program determined. As they press the issue, they are seeking information on enrollment that Louisiana Education Superintendent John White says is voluminous and intrusive.
"It's a power grab," White said in a Tuesday telephone news conference.
Justice filings have cited examples including Celilia Primary School in St. Martin Parish, where six black students exited thanks to vouchers, increasing the percentage of white students in the 2012-13 school year; and the Independence Elementary School in Tangipahoa Parish, which lost five white students as a result of the voucher program, increased its black student percentage.
State officials have countered by noting that the actual percentage change at each school was less than a percentage point; and with a study by Boston University political science professor Christine Rossell, which said vouchers have had a "negligible, but slightly positive" effect on racial balance in the 34 Louisiana districts under federal desegregation orders.
Taxpayer-financed tuition through Louisiana's voucher program is available to students from low- to moderate-income families who otherwise would attend public schools graded C, D or F in the state's rating system.
The state Department of Education said in October that 6,751 students are enrolled in 126 private schools across the state with taxpayer dollars. That's up from 4,944 students using vouchers at the same point last year, in the first year of the statewide program.
The program is estimated to cost the state $36 million in the current budget year.