NEW ORLEANS -- The U.S. Justice Department sued Louisiana on Saturday to stop the state from distributing school vouchers in any district that remains under a desegregation court order.
Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal called the department's action "shameful" and said President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder "are trying to keep kids trapped in failing public schools against the wishes of their parents."
"The Obama administration thinks parents should have to seek their approval any time parents want to send their child to a school of their choice," Jindal said in a news release. "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. Parents should have the ability to decide where to send their child to school."
Louisiana has 70 school districts, and 34 remain under desegregation court orders, many of which are decades old.
In papers filed in U.S. District Court in New Orleans, the Justice Department said Louisiana distributed vouchers in 2012-13 to nearly 600 public school students in districts that are still under such orders, and "many of those vouchers impeded the desegregation process."
The department said Louisiana has given vouchers this school year to students in at least 22 districts remaining under desegregation orders. It's asking the court, starting with the 2014-15 school year, to permanently block the state from awarding vouchers in districts that are under desegregation orders, unless those districts seek court approval.
Louisiana lawmakers approved a voucher program in 2008 for low-income New Orleans students who were in failing schools. The Louisiana Scholarship Program was later expanded statewide. It allows children in school districts graded C, D or F to receive public money to attend private schools.
Jindal called school choice "a moral imperative."
"Make no mistake -- this motion is a threat to the children in our state who only get one chance to grow up and deserve the opportunity to get the best education so they can pursue their dreams," Jindal said of the Justice Department filing.
A federal desegregation lawsuit for Louisiana was originally filed in 1971 and court papers list the case as closed in 1976. However, there have been several filings in the case in the past several months, including the one Saturday by the Justice Department.
In arguing that the voucher program had hurt desegregation efforts, the Justice Department cited an example of Independence Elementary School in Tangipahoa Parish. It said the school lost five white students because of the voucher program, "reinforcing the racial identity of the school as a black school." It also said Celilia Primary School in St. Martin Parish School District is a majority-white school in a majority-black district, and it lost six black students because of vouchers, "reinforcing the school's racial identity as a white school."
State Education Superintendent John White told the Times-Picayune (http://bit.ly/1ddC6cu ) that almost all the students using vouchers are black and "it's a little ridiculous" to argue that students' departure to voucher schools makes their home school systems less white. He also said it's ironic that rules established to combat racism were being called on to keep black students in failing schools.