By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org
Louisiana may be in a little less danger of having the federal government shut down its school voucher program, but Gov. Bobby Jindal said the government’s next move could “red tape and regulate the program to death.”
“The Department of Justice needs to take a step back and think about what if it was them,” said Mitzi Crain-Dillon, who has two children attending a private school through a voucher and one daughter remaining in the local public school.
“As a student, not just the parent but the student, wouldn’t they want to have a great opportunity in life? Isn’t that what everyone wants to be in America for?”
The court on Friday will hear arguments over whether the the decades-old desegregation court order applies to the voucher program.
Since August the DOJ has been mounting, backpedaling on, and still pursuing a court case that put the state’s voucher program in jeopardy, arguing that the program may violate longstanding court orders to desegregate schools. Its initial motion tried to block the state from issuing vouchers without federal permission, then an amendment to that motion said — without withdrawing the previous request — it simply wanted to make sure the state collected and filed appropriate data and otherwise complied with federal law in issuing vouchers.
The department attempted to bar families from intervening in the case, and on Nov. 18 abandoned its request to block the program.
Jindal and 30 U.S. senators have opposed the department’s actions throughout the case.
The Justice Department’s argument is based on false information, say lawyers involved in the case.
“We have by far the stronger argument. This was a very strange motion that the DOJ brought,” said Jon Riches, attorney for the Goldwater Institute, which had been poised to intervene on behalf of Louisiana families. The institute will file as friend of the court.
Goldwater attorneys argue that the federal desegregation orders don’t apply to the voucher program. Even if they did, results of a study by the University of Arkansas and the state’s own report show a positive change in the racial makeup of schools as a result of the voucher program.
The program is only open to low-income families assigned to average-to-failing schools, and more than 90 percent of recipients are minorities.
“A lot of civil rights activists would roll in their grave if they knew they had the liberal left opposing a for-minority choice where to send their kids,” said state Rep. Kirk Talbot, who co-sponsored 2012 legislation that expanded the voucher program.
The Louisiana Association of Educators supports the DOJ’s actions, but it’s not directly involved in the case, said Deborah Meaux, president of Louisiana’s National Education Association affiliate.
“I think it is appropriate,” she said. “I think the state has a duty to inform the Department of Justice, at least the judges in each of the districts, as to the racial mixture of kids so that the judges can make sure that the balances that they’ve set up for each district are not disturbed. ”
Crain-Dillon’s family is biracial, and she said she’s disappointed the DOJ has brought race into the conversation.
“Just to know that they’re trying to base (the lawsuit) on a desegregation order that was put in place 50 years ago, it’s just saddening. We’re in 2013; we’re supposed to be moving forward and moving away from those times, and if that’s so important … why not just start shifting kids and make it 50-50?” she said. “People try and hinder these kids trying to better themselves, and (hinder) their parents trying to better their kids.”
She’s been pleased with the private Christian school her ninth-grade daughter, Taylor, and seventh-grade son, Titus, are attending with vouchers. The kids are challenged more, and she receives emails from teachers about school projects the students are working on, and even got a text message informing her of a power outage at the school.
At the public school where her other daughter attends, she has waited more than a week for a response from a teacher about an issue she feels is serious.
“She acknowledged the email, but that’s been it,” she said.
Taylor and Titus are happy with the school, as well, she said.
“They love the school. They really want to go next year, they want to attend, so it makes it difficult. They don’t understand this whole lawsuit and everything; they just think it’s something they want to do so they should be able to do it,” she said. “Now they’ve gone there, they’ve made friends. It’s possible they may need to go to a whole new school next year, and they’re at an age where changing schools isn’t a cool deal anymore. It can be stressful for a kid.”
“All that takes a factor, just having that in the back of your head, ‘I may not go here next year.’ It’s kind of a downer.”
If Louisiana schools are failing, Jindal and Superintendent John White aren’t doing their job, Meaux said.
“There’s too much emphasis at the state level on the vouchers, and not enough emphasis on public school education,” she said. “They keep saying our schools are failing, then they should be fixing them, and not trying to aid an alternative system, a system that’s not constitutionally endowed with the authority to provide education.”
Louisiana families benefit from the voucher program, said state Rep. Alan Seabaugh, who also co-sponsored the voucher expansion bill.
“The only students eligible are economically disadvantaged who are in failing schools, and I have a hard time finding a problem with (taking) a student who’s in a failing school and giving him an opportunity to go somewhere else. It simply boils down to that,” he said. “If you have a student whose parents can’t afford private school and he’s stuck in a failing school, if you offer me a program that gets that kid out of that school and somewhere else, I’m going to be for that program.”
He called the lawsuit “one of the most wrongheaded things that’s come down the pike in a long time.”
“There’s no legal, ethical, or moral justification for the federal government’s position on that lawsuit,” he said.
When the state Legislature passed the voucher bill, Seabaugh expected local school boards to challenge it, because the money follows the students out of the public school and into a private school. Similar challenges have come against school choice programs in Arizona, Alabama, and several other states.
The DOJ challenge, Seabaugh said, was a surprise.
“I did not see the federal government lawsuit coming because it’s hard to predict stupidity,” he said.
“When we give out food stamps, for example, to low-income people we don’t say, ‘Here’s your food stamp. You can go to the grocery store that’s nearest you, and that’s it. If they don’t have fresh fruit, you don’t get fresh fruit. If they have criminal activity in the parking lot, too bad,” Talbot said. “For some reason, that’s what we did with education. Your choices are limited to what your mailbox address is.”
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