Judge Backs Federal Oversight of La. Voucher Plan

By Mark Walsh — November 24, 2013 2 min read
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A federal judge on Friday ruled that the federal government has the right to oversee Louisiana’s private-school voucher assignments to ensure they do not harm desegregation plans, news reports say. But the judge also expressed concern about the federal oversight hampering the voucher program, and he gave the state and the federal government 60 days to agree on a review process, the reports say.

“This court has an obligation ... to take reasonable steps whereby the voucher program is not being used to promote segregation,” U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle said in his New Orleans courtroom, according to The New Orleans Advocate newspaper. “The Constitution mandates it. This case mandates it.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, has been at odds with the U.S. Department of Justice since August about whether his private-school voucher program, which is serving an estimated 8,000 students this year, comes under the ambit of a 1975 statewide desegregation consent decree barring state aid to to any private school that discriminates on the basis of race.

The Justice Department filed a motion in August under that 1975 case, Brumfield v. Dodd, seeking to enjoin the state from issuing vouchers to students at schools still under court supervision for desegregation unless the state gets the approval of the court overseeing the relevant desegregation plan. Some 34 of Louisiana’s 64 parish (county) school systems remain under some degree of federal court supervision for desegregation.

Lemelle said in a separate ruling last week that the department has effectively dropped its request to enjoin the voucher program and is now seeking a process to ensure that the state provides information and complies with desegregation obligations with the voucher program.

According to the accounts of reporters who were present Friday, both in the Advocate story cited above and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Lemelle suggested the federal review process should not be so complex as to slow down the voucher program. In fact, state figures show that the first two years of the statewide program aided desegregation efforts in many sending public schools, the judge said.

The judge, according to the reports, also wondered aloud why the state had not moved to get out of the Brumfield v. Dodd decree after so many years. A state lawyer suggested the state has been wary of stirring up “a hornet’s nest” with such a move.

The judge set Jan. 22 as the next status conference in the case.

Friday’s action left both sides claiming victory.

“We are pleased that the court has supported the department’s position in this matter,” Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said, according to the Times-Picayune. “This should not have been controversial in the first place.”

Jindal, in a statement, said, “We’re pleased the judge acknowledged that data provided by the state show the program does not have a negative impact on desegregation. We are also glad the judge made clear he does not want to disrupt the scholarship program.

“We will draw a hard line against allowing the federal government to control the scholarship program and handpick schools for Louisiana’s children,” Jindal added.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.