POLITICS
09/17/2013 01:02 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2013

House Republicans Step Into School Vouchers Fight Between DOJ, Louisiana

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House Republicans are stepping into the legal battle over school vouchers in Louisiana.

On Tuesday, a group of high-ranking GOP legislators wrote Attorney General Eric Holder to argue that the Department of Justice lawsuit over the vouchers will force Louisiana students to "remain in failing schools." The group -- which includes House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee -- also charged that the DOJ suit could "cause other states to feel pressured to shut down similar initiatives that provide countless children the opportunity to receive a better education."

School voucher systems use taxpayer dollars to help students attend private, often religious schools. In August, DOJ sued the state of Louisiana, seeking to block implementation of its voucher program starting next school year in the 34 Louisiana school districts under desegregation orders. The department argues that "the loss of students through the voucher program reversed much of the process made toward integration."

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has championed vouchers, arguing that they can help poor students overcome their circumstances. In 2012, the state created a voucher system for about 380,000 low-income students enrolled in schools that received a C grade or lower on the state's school-grading scheme.

The evidence on the value of vouchers is limited. In Louisiana, some of the schools accepting voucher money were using textbooks that assert the existence of the Loch Ness monster as fact or teaching creationism. A review of the state's public records also raises questions about the ability of these schools to serve special education students. For example, the St. Angela Merici school wrote on its application that it provided no specific services for students with autism.

Last year, the Louisiana program gave out 5,000 scholarships, and it has awarded 8,000 for the new school year. "That increase demonstrates the immense popularity of the program," the House Republicans wrote Tuesday, adding that 12,000 parents applied this year. Louisiana's program is one of 39 such initiatives in 18 states and the District of Columbia, they noted.

Louisiana's Supreme Court struck down the law's funding mechanism this spring, but Jindal found a different pot of $40 million to fund the vouchers.

Jindal has used the DOJ suit as a launching point for a broader critique of the Obama administration. "It is amazing to me that almost exactly 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous speech saying that he dreamt of a day when his children would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, almost 50 years to the day, our own federal government would be trying to force kids back into failing schools," he said in August at a conference sponsored by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation.

Now, the House Republicans are asking Holder to send them by Oct. 1 an explanation of how the lawsuit will help students "access better education opportunities," a list of meetings that Holder and his staff have held with outside groups related to the suit, "all written communication and correspondence" within the administration about Louisiana's voucher program, and "all written communication and correspondence between the department and outside interest groups regarding the Louisiana scholarship program."

"We strongly urge you to consider the effects of this poorly conceived motion on the very children you profess to be protecting," their letter concludes.

School vouchers in general have become a partisan flashpoint in Washington. President Barack Obama often agrees with Republicans on K-12 education policy, but every year, his budget zeroes out D.C.'s voucher program, setting off a round of opposition from Republicans like Boehner and Cantor.

A DOJ spokesperson said the department will review the House GOP letter once it is received.

As to the lawsuit, the spokesperson said, "The United States is not seeking to end Louisiana's voucher program. The United States seeks a straightforward goal: to ensure that the State of Louisiana implements its school voucher program in a manner that complies with the U.S. Constitution and long-standing federal desegregation orders. To accomplish this, the United States needs specific information about the school voucher program -- much of which Louisiana officials say they already collect. And indeed, the Department's request is fully consistent with the Louisiana law that established the voucher program, which provides that the program is 'subject to any court-ordered desegregation plan in effect for the school system in which the public school is located.'"

The story has been updated with comment from the Justice Department.

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