The U.S. Justice Department is suing the state of Louisiana in federal court in New Orleans to prevent low-income students and their families in 34 public school systems from using vouchers to attend private schools for the 2014-15 academic year.
The federal government contends that the private school vouchers have “impeded the desegregation process,” reports The Times-Picayune.
The desegregation process of which feds speak has been going on for almost 40 years—since the presidential administration of Gerald R. Ford.
The Justice Department attorneys base their case on a 1975 federal court ruling (Brumfield v. Dodd) that prohibited the state from providing financial support for private schools if such support failed to further the federal government’s desegregation efforts.
Obama’s Justice Department argues that the Watergate-era case should prevent current efforts to provide taxpayer-funded vouchers to families with children who attend failing public schools.
Under Louisiana’s statewide voucher program, called the Louisiana Scholarship Program, students from families below a certain income threshold can enroll in private schools on the state’s dime if the state gives their public schools a grade of C, D or F.
For the 2013-14 school year, notes The Times-Picayune, families in 22 of the 34 affected districts have chosen to utilize vouchers to send their kids to private schools.
The Justice Department’s main contention is that vouchers will upset the delicate racial balance of the public schools. Independence Elementary School in Tangipahoa Parish lost five white kids because of vouchers. This change bolstered “the racial identity of the school as a black school,” DOJ lawyers argue.
“The loss of students through the voucher program reversed much of the progress made toward integration,” Obama’s Justice Department asserts.
State Education Superintendent John White calls these claims “a little ridiculous,” according to The Times-Picayune. Overall, he notes, virtually all the students and families who are using vouchers are black.
White reflected that it’s odd that Justice is now using a 1975 lawsuit intended to desegregate schools to force poor black students to attend bad public schools.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal criticized the lawsuit as well.
“After generations of being denied a choice, parents finally can choose a school for their child, but now the federal government is stepping in to prevent parents from exercising this right. Shame on them,” he told The Times-Picayune.
The federal lawsuit would compel state officials to scrutinize voucher use this year to determine how vouchers square with the desegregation ruling that is nearly four decades old.
A hearing on the Justice Department petition has been tentatively scheduled for Sept. 19.
Judge Ivan Lemelle will decide the case. In November, Lemelle, a Clinton appointee, pronounced that certain parts of Jindal’s 2012 education law were unconstitutional
The attorneys who signed the Justice Department lawsuit are Jocelyn Samuels, Anurima Bhargava and Torey Cummings.
Samuels is a fairly lackluster judge who has advocated zealously for laws mandating equal pay for women. However, Bhargava and Torey Cummings have colorful and exciting pasts.
Bhargava recently spent six years at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund where she contended, among other things, that school districts should be allowed to force public students to go to different schools because of the colors of their skin. As J. Christian Adams of PJ Media notes, the Supreme Court flatly rebuffed this argument as unconstitutional.
Bhargava also publicly criticized a Bush-era consent decree negotiated between the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and Southern Illinois University. The consent ended a policy making white students ineligible for certain paid fellowships. Bhargava complained that allowing white people to apply for the fellowships would “hinder the legitimate efforts of colleges and universities to create equal educational opportunity.”
The third signatory of the petition, Torey Cummings, came to the Justice Department from private practice. One of her achievements had been performing substantial pro bono work as an attorney for Guantanamo Bay detainees.
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