US Department of Justice: Bobby Jindal’s School Voucher Program Is Illegal

Yesterday, the United States Department of Justice asked Judge Ivan Lemelle to issue an injunction preventing the State of Louisiana from providing taxpayer-subsidized school vouchers in 2014 to students residing in any of the thirty-four parishes currently subjected to federal desegregation orders. In simple terms, Governor Bobby Jindal, Superintendent John White, and the Louisiana Department of Education have been completely unable and unwilling to provide the federal government with sufficient evidence that their controversial school voucher program complies with the law. Because Superintendent John White and his team at the Louisiana Department of Education could not or would not provide the federal government with documentation demonstrating their compliance, the Department of Justice was, essentially, forced to go to court. Quoting from the lawsuit (bold mine):

Only after filing multiple motions in this case and receiving an order of this Court (see Record Docs. No. 109-202), did the United States finally receive, in March of 2013, the information and data it requested from the State. After analyzing the data, the United States determined that the State’s voucher awards appeared to impede the desegregation process in 34 schools in 13 districts. On May 17, 2013, the United States sent a letter to the State… requesting that the State cease its practice of awarding vouchers to students attending school districts operating under federal desegregation orders unless and until it receives approval from the presiding federal court. The State has not responded to that letter and, on information and belief of the United States, has already awarded vouchers for the 2013-2014 school year to students attending school districts operating under desegregation orders.

….

To date, the State has awarded vouchers for 2013-2014 to students in 22 of the 34 school districts with pending federal desegregation orders. See supra at notes 3-4 and Exhibit E. Upon information and belief, the State did not seek the approval of the appropriate federal court prior to awarding the vouchers to students in these districts. Further, the State did not contact the parties to the federal desegregation cases prior to awarding vouchers. Upon information and belief of the United States, the State did not evaluate the impact the vouchers would have on the desegregation process in any of the school districts operating under a federal desegregation order.

Governor Jindal and Superintendent White will lose this case, and ultimately, their intransigence, their incompetence, and their willful disregard for transparency and accountability will, once again, cost Louisiana taxpayers.

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Even if you agree with the concept of school vouchers, even if you think that the government should be subsidizing wholly unqualified private schools while disinvesting from our already robust public education system, even if you believe in a system that robs money from our most vulnerable communities in order to prop up a parallel system of church schools, you still must concede, at the very least, that if you’re going to win over us cynics and skeptics, then the program must be completely above board.

A couple of months ago, Zack Kopplin, Ben Simpson, and I spent an afternoon holed up in a conference room at the Louisiana Department of Education’s offices in Downtown Baton Rouge, pouring over some of the records we had formally requested. Among other things, Zack, Ben, and I inspected and reviewed the Brumfield v. Dodd compliance reports for every single voucher school in the State of Louisiana. Considering that these records can only be reviewed in person and have never been digitized, I’d venture to guess that Zack, Ben, and I are the only three people outside of the state or federal government who have ever thoroughly inspected them.

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But before I get into the details, you need to know this: Brumfield v. Dodd was a district court case that, in practical terms, requires every private school in the state to certify that it does not discriminate on the basis of race.  Quoting from the Times-Picayune:

(Superintendent) White also pointed out that the schools in the voucher program must comply with the terms of 1975 court case, Brumfield v. Dodd, that prohibits the state from giving public money to private schools that uphold segregation or discrimination.

The records that Zack, Ben, and I reviewed will likely be at the center of Governor Jindal’s and Superintendent White’s response to the Department of Justice’s lawsuit. If they intend on proving to the court that their voucher program does not improperly interfere with desegregation orders, then they will rely heavily on these reports.

But unfortunately for Governor Jindal and Superintendent White, these reports, in their totality, only reinforce the Department of Education’s complete lack of oversight; they forcefully demonstrate Governor Jindal and Superintendent White’s recklessness and wanton disregard for effective quality controls. To be sure, the reports, by their very nature, do not establish purposeful racial discrimination, but several schools (perhaps unwittingly) disclose other discriminatory policies, reserving their right to expel gay and lesbian students and openly acknowledging that they charge more in tuition for students who aren’t members of their sponsoring church. (Even though these records can only be inspected in person, we were smart enough to take pictures. And as much as I’d like to share those right now,

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I think it’d be far more productive, for all of us, if Superintendent White and Governor Jindal were, for the first time, forced to actually review the records of all of the schools in the program. They may learn something).

Perhaps not surprisingly, Governor Jindal and Superintendent White have already expressed outrage over this lawsuit, suggesting, incredulously, that the Department of Justice’s actions prove that President Obama and Attorney General Holder, both African-Americans, are seeking to prevent poor African-American children from having the opportunity to access a quality education. Quoting from The Advocate:

“This is shameful. President (Barack) Obama and Attorney General (Eric) Holder are trying to keep kids trapped in failing public schools against the wishes of their parents,” Jindal said in a prepared statement released Saturday.

Ordinarily, I would ask, “Who the hell does Bobby Jindal think he’s fooling?” But unfortunately, I perused the comment cesspool on NOLA.com: Bobby Jindal knows exactly who he’s fooling.

And although Bobby Jindal is pretty skilled at preparing statements against the President, for whatever reason, he’s never been able to figure out how to actually do his job. Truth be told: He may be OK at politicking, but he’s pretty terrible at governing. This case, for example, has very little to do with the Obama administration opposing school vouchers; it’s based, almost entirely, on Governor Jindal’s epic incompetence, sloppy record-keeping, and utter contempt for transparency.

Bobby Jindal can blame Barack Obama for his own failures until he turns blue in the face; it’s just a short-term sound byte that he hopes will distract from a long-term problem. But as much as he may try, Bobby Jindal can no longer get away with blaming his failures on the President. He should consult the polls, because Barack Obama is more popular in Louisiana than he is. And for a good reason.

Like him or loathe him, at least Barack Obama, unlike Mr. Jindal, takes his job seriously.