Obama Administration Continues to Press for Race-Based Louisiana Vouchers

Obama Administration Continues to Press for Race-Based Louisiana Vouchers
November 26, 2013

Mary C. Tillotson

Mary Petrides Tillotson is an education reporter for Watchdog.org.  (read full bio)

The Obama administration and the state of Louisiana have 60 days to work out how the feds can monitor whether state vouchers alter the skin-color ratios of students enrolled in public schools, a state judge decided Friday.

Gov. Bobby Jindal said the national government could “regulate the program to death.”

“The Department of Justice (DOJ) 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 her public school. “As a student,… wouldn’t they want to have a great opportunity in life? Isn’t that what everyone wants to be in America for?”

Since August the DOJ has been mountingbackpedaling on, and still pursuing a court case against the vouchers, arguing the program may violate longstanding court orders to desegregate schools. DOJ’s 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 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 it abandoned its request to block the program, switching to its regulatory request.

Jindal and 30 U.S. Senators have consistently opposed the department’s actions.

Opposing Opportunity for Minorities
The Justice Department’s argument is based on false information, say lawyers on 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 tried to intervene on behalf of Louisiana families. It will instead file as friend of the court.

Goldwater attorneys argue the original 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 the voucher program increases racial integration.

The program is open only 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 of where to send their kids,” said state Rep. Kirk Talbot (R-River Ridge), who cosponsored 2012 legislation that expanded the voucher program.

The Louisiana Association of Educators supports the DOJ’s actions but is not directly involved in the case, said Deborah Meaux, president of Louisiana’s National Education Association affiliate.

“The 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. ”

Working for Families
Crain-Dillon’s family is biracial, and she said she’s disappointed the DOJ has brought race into the conversation.

“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 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, attend with vouchers. The kids are challenged more, and she receives emails from teachers about school projects the students are working on. She even got a text message informing her of a power outage at the school.

At the public school her other daughter attends, she has waited more than a week for a response from a teacher about an issue she feels is serious.

“Just having that in the back of your head, ‘I may not go here next year.’ It’s kind of a downer.”

Fix Public Schools
Meaux blames Jindal and state Superintendent John White for any failings of Louisiana schools.

“There’s too much emphasis at the state level on the vouchers, and not enough emphasis on public school education,” she said.

Louisiana families benefit from vouchers, said state Rep. Alan Seabaugh (R-Caddo Parish), who cosponsored the voucher expansion.

“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.

“There’s no legal, ethical, or moral justification for the federal government’s position,” he said.

When the legislature passed the voucher bill, Seabaugh expected local school boards to challenge it, because state money follows the students into a private school. Similar challenges have been filed against school choice programs in ArizonaAlabama, and several other states.

“I did not see the federal government lawsuit coming, because it’s hard to predict stupidity,” Seabaugh 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."

Mary Tillotson (mary.c.tillotson@gmail.com) is an education reporter for Watchdog.org, from where this article is reprinted with permission. Image by Lakshman Anand.

Mary C. Tillotson

Mary Petrides Tillotson is an education reporter for Watchdog.org.  (read full bio)