There’s a clash of eras going on in Louisiana, where the last remnants of a long-standing desegregation case threaten to thwart state officials who say they have a more modern approach to school reform—one that embraces private school vouchers.
The two eras will soon come face to face in a federal courtroom in New Orleans. President Barack Obama’s administration last month filed court papers 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.
The motion, filed under a decades-old statewide desegregation case, might have been classified as routine. The 2012 state law expanding the voucher program statewide acknowledged that the program was “subject to any court-ordered desegregation plan in effect” for a particular school district.
The U.S. Department of Justice, in court papers, argued that the state was ignoring such desegregation plans and that its award of vouchers last year pulled children away from public schools in a way that “caused the schoolwide racial demographics to stray further from districtwide demographic percentages and resulted in an increase in racially disproportionate representation in 24 historically segregated schools.”
State officials all but declared war on the federal government over the motion.
“The Justice Department has challenged my state in court for having the temerity to start a scholarship program that frees low-income minority children from failing schools,” Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, wrote in an opinion essay in The Washington Post. “[President Barack] Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder would rip children out of their [voucher] schools and handcuff them to the failing schools they previously attended.”
John White, the state superintendent of education, said in an interview, “We’re making a moral argument. … It’s a question of whether this is the right thing for the Justice Department to do.”
Asked for a comment, a Justice Department spokesperson issued a statement noting that the department is not seeking “to take vouchers away from students currently receiving them.”
“We are not opposing the voucher program,” the statement said. “We simply want to ensure that it is implemented in a legal way, consistent with court-ordered desegregation plans.”
Aid to Private Schools
The Justice Department points out in its brief that Louisiana used to provide a different form of aid to private schools—contributions of books and transportation help in the 1960s and early 1970s to segregated private schools, which gave white families an easy escape amid efforts to desegregate the public schools.
In 1975, in a case known as Brumfield v. Dodd, a federal court in Louisiana barred the state from providing support to private schools in ways that further racial segregation or discrimination.
To this day, Louisiana private schools receiving any form of state aid must file forms certifying that they don’t discriminate. The Brumfield case has remained active, with the Justice Department a party. It was under this case that the department filed its Aug. 22 motion regarding the state voucher program.
Meanwhile, 34 of Louisiana’s 64 parish (or county) school systems remain under federal court supervision for desegregation; the Justice Department is involved in 24 of them. Some cases are technically active but largely dormant. Other districts have won at least partial “unitary” status, in which a federal court has released the school system from its desegregation obligation in areas such as teacher assignment or transportation.
Many of the districts, though, require court approval for actions such as moving school attendance lines and achieving classroom diversity goals. Just last week, members of the Tangipahoa Parish school board met with the public over a proposal to modify attendance lines to achieve greater racial balance in the 20,000-student district northwest of New Orleans.
The voucher program began in 2008 for New Orleans students and went statewide in 2012. It offers vouchers to poor students in public schools that have received grades of C, D, or F from the state. While most voucher programs in other states allow recipients to choose a participating private school, in Louisiana placement decisions are made by the state, with families allowed to re-enter the program lottery if they are dissatisfied with their initial award.
The state awarded 5,766 vouchers last school year, and was expected to award some 8,000 this year.
The Justice Department alleges that the vouchers, which were awarded to at least 570 students in 22 districts under desegregation plans last school year, have had an impact on racial demographics in at least half of those districts.
“Some of these schools had achieved or were close to achieving the desired degree of student racial diversity, and the loss of students through the voucher program reversed much of the progress made toward desegregation,” the department said in court papers.
The Justice Department cited examples. One elementary school in the St. Martin Parish school district lost six African-American students to the voucher program last year, making a mostly white school in a mostly black district even whiter. Meanwhile, in Tangipahoa Parish, a mostly black elementary school lost five white students to the voucher program last year in a school that already had a substantial majority of black students.
“The state’s continued issuance of vouchers without proper regard for existing district desegregation orders or consent from appropriate federal courts impedes these school districts’ desegregation efforts, and deprives the students of their right to a desegregated educational experience,” the Justice Department says in its court filing.
The Justice Department’s motion does not seek to force any voucher students from private schools back to their public schools. Nor does it seek to block the award of vouchers for the 2013-14 school year, though it does ask that the state analyze the impact of the vouchers of school desegregation this year. And it asks the federal court to enjoin the award of vouchers for 2014-15 to students from schools under court supervision unless the state receives court authorization.
The Justice Department has support from at least one quarter: the school districts under desegregation plans and their advocates.
Scott Richard, the executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said districts, though they may have opposed the desegregation plans at the outset, have spent millions of dollars to develop those plans and to fine-tune them over the years.
“At the end of the day, the voucher program does not help those matters,” said Mr. Richard, whose group not incidentally joined in a state-law challenge to the funding of the voucher plan last year because it took money from the state’s minimum foundation program for school districts. (The challenge was successful, and Gov. Jindal was forced to find alternative sources to fund the program.)
School districts “are under federal oversight for every decision they have to make, yet legislation from the state comes along and sets up processes that perhaps run counter to desegregation plans that are in place,” Mr. Richard said.
Looking at the Evidence
Mr. White, the state superintendent, said that district desegregation plans have a “program interest” in achieving racial-diversity goals for their own sake, while the state voucher program has a “moral and justice interest” in helping recipients, most of whom are African-American, depart substandard public schools.
School districts “have had 45 years to get out from under their desegregation plans, and now they are relying on those plans” to argue against the voucher program, Mr. White said.
He added that he believes the examples cited by the Justice Department presented evidence that was “slim at best” that the movement of a few students here and there would upset desegregation goals.
The state has attracted much attention and support from conservative editorial pages and some education analysts. Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, wrote on a Brookings blog last week that the Justice Department is denying “black parents the right to send their children to the school the parents choose and force them to send their children to the school the courts choose because if they do otherwise it will mess up [its desegregation] spreadsheets.”
The state also has support from African-Americans who embrace the voucher program.
“When we have public schools that have not been meeting the needs of kids, to block this opportunity for kids just to make sure we have some classroom diversity is an unfortunate thing,” said Eric B. Lewis, the state director for the Black Alliance for Educational Options.
“This is not a situation where we have segregated schools and white people are trying to flee the public schools,” he added. “At least 85 percent of the kids benefiting from the voucher program are black kids. So for us that is the irony of the situation.”
A hearing before U.S. District Judge Ivan I.R. Lemelle of New Orleans was scheduled for this week, though the state was seeking a postponement to have more time to gather information.
Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, said he considered the state’s response to the motion “99 percent political” and that the Justice Department is on very strong ground.
“While desegregation orders are in effect, you can’t take actions that undermine those orders while under the supervision of a federal court,” said Mr. Orfield, an expert on and longtime advocate for desegregation. “I think the reaction of the state is completely out of proportion with what the Justice Department is proposing.”
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A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 2013 edition of Education Week as Louisiana Vouchers, Desegregation Case Prove Volatile Mix