By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org
At least 600 Louisiana school children, possibly 1,300 more, will lose the opportunity to leave failing public schools for better ones, if a motion by the U.S. Department of Justice is successful.
Louisiana’s school voucher program, which gives private-school scholarships to low-income students attending schools graded C, D, or F, violates the state’s desegregation orders from the 1960s and 70s, the DOJ alleges.
More than 90 percent of voucher recipients are minorities, and more than 80 percent are assigned to D or F schools.
But the DOJ is trying to pull a fast one and hardly has a case, says Richard Komer, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va.-based libertarian public interest law firm.
Resurrecting ancient history
The lawsuit, Brumfield v. Dodd, dates from the 1970s, when a parent sued the state of Louisiana and six school districts over a program that had been around since the 1920s allowing public funds for textbooks and transportation to all Louisiana students, in public or private schools.
The desegregation orders prompted swarms of white families to pull their children from public schools and send them to all-white private schools. Some public schools lost several hundred white students in a single year, Komer said. The lawsuit blamed the book-and-bus program for encouraging “white flight” and thus impeding the desegregation process.
In 1975, the federal judge on the case ruled that no state assistance, including textbooks and transportation, could go to racially discriminatory private schools. The case saw some minor activity in 1977, but since then, nothing has happened, though the case was never closed.
Louisiana’s voucher program requires that participating private schools comply with the order and not discriminate against students based on race.
“There are schools in Louisiana that comply with this court order, and who from the time of the court order in 1975, have continued to receive textbooks and transportation for their private students, because they are in compliance with the court order,” Komer said. “The voucher program mandates that for a private school to receive any students’ vouchers from the state, they have to be in compliance with the case’s court order.”
The DOJ has not filed a new lawsuit, but has filed a motion in the old Brumfield case, claiming in at least 22 Louisiana parishes desegregation has yet to be achieved. The scholarship program, they claim, may hurt the process to further desegregate the schools.
Federal officials also claim the state must inspect the racial demographics before allowing students to use the vouchers. Students could leave public schools only if their leaving would shift the demographics away from segregation.
The 22 parishes are among the 34 still not complying with the desegregation orders – likely because districts still desegregating are eligible for federal money, said Clint Bolick, vice president of litigation at the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, which will represent some parents in the case.
“Even in the worst case scenario, the program would continue for a majority of the kids receiving scholarships,” Bolick said.
But it’s unrealistic to expect the state to complete all those inspections before the 2014-15 school year, and students in those parishes likely would not receive vouchers.
“For us, the bottom line is that is incredibly perverse. These kids are the intended beneficiaries of the desegregation decrees,” Bolick said.
Contact Mary C. Tillotson at firstname.lastname@example.org
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