NEW ORLEANS – A federal appeals court in New Orleans was set to hear arguments Monday on whether the state must present reports about its school voucher program to the U.S. government.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would hear an appeal by pro-voucher groups who say the Justice Department is trying to stifle the program, which provides tuition to some low- and moderate-income families whose children otherwise would go to low-performing public schools.
The Legislature approved the voucher program, supported by Gov. Bobby Jindal, in 2012.
The state has said compiling the reports for federal officials won’t hurt the program. But some voucher supporters, represented by the conservative Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, are pressing on with the appeal.
In April 2014, a federal judge ruled that the state could be required to provide information about the program in accordance with a 1975 court order and a 1985 consent decree in a desegregation case. That case found that Louisiana had impeded integration and violated federal law by providing books, equipment and transportation to segregated private schools.
The federal government can get information including lists of voucher applicants, information on schools in the voucher program, and enrollment and racial breakdowns on public and private schools, U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle ruled.
“There is currently no order affecting the State’s implementation of the voucher program in any manner,” U.S. Justice Department attorneys wrote in their brief. “The sole issue the district court decided … was whether the United States may obtain information from the State of Louisiana relating to the voucher program in a timely manner.”
Voucher families and a pro-voucher group called the Louisiana Black Alliance for Educational Options say Judge Lemelle made significant changes to the earlier orders, extending them to a “brand-new remedial education program” without any allegation that it is discriminatory or helps segregated schools.
Lemelle’s ruling “places a cloud of perpetual uncertainty over the vital educational opportunities the program provides, it marks a major affront to the principles of federalism, and it represents an improper exercise of federal court jurisdiction,” their attorneys wrote.
Arguments about the program had largely centered on the funding and effectiveness of voucher schools, and whether the program bled away money needed by public schools. Then, in August 2013, the Justice Department filed a motion in the case of Brumfield v. Dodd, the desegregation lawsuit that resulted in the 1975 desegregation order.
Justice officials first sought an order to block future vouchers in districts under desegregation orders unless the state first got federal court permission, a move voucher supporters called an attack by the administration of President Barack Obama on vouchers. Justice Department attorneys have since backed away from seeking an injunction but have continued to seek information.