POLITICS
09/24/2013 07:55 am ET

Louisiana Voucher Lawsuit Opposition Aligns Minority Families With Republican Politicians

School vouchers, a controversial system for funding private schools with public dollars, are aligning a group of minority Louisiana parents with prominent Republican politicians. 

A U.S. Department of Justice federal lawsuit filed against Louisiana in August argues the state school voucher program violates longstanding desegregation orders in 34 school districts. Now, a group of four mostly minority families from those districts represented by the libertarian Goldwater Institute and the Louisiana Black Alliance for Educational Options is asking a judge to dismiss the case.

Mitzi Dillon, a Covington, La., mother with two black children in voucher schools and one in a public school, said she joined the court fight because she was shocked by the U.S. filing. "We're still going round and round with the same battle of race, when is it going to stop?" Dillon said. "So what if black kids are going to mostly white schools? They should be able to get equal education wherever they are, especially if the public school is failing."

Last month's U.S. lawsuit against Louisiana, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington, argues that "the loss of students through the voucher program reversed much of the process made toward integration." Since then, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has rallied some of his high-profile friends, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, to fight against Attorney General Eric Holder. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on a radio show that he hadn't heard of the case.

The four Louisiana families on Tuesday filed a motion asking Judge Ivan Lemelle to drop the lawsuit, arguing that two procedural problems don't allow what the Justice Department seeks. The motion argues that the judge doesn't have jurisdiction over the voucher program statewide, and that the program doesn't actually violate the federal desegregation orders the lawsuit claims it does.

A former Department of Justice Attorney, Clint Bolick, is representing the families for Goldwater, along with Louisiana private attorney Murphy F. Bell Jr. BAEO is a right-leaning group that claims 2,400 member families in Louisiana. "These problems ought to wipe away the Justice Department's motion," Bolick said in an interview.

If the arguments fail, Bolick said, he will argue the substance of the case. The children attending private schools with vouchers "are among the intended beneficiaries of the desegregation orders to which the United States seeks to subject the scholarship program (and, of course, they are intended beneficiaries of this lawsuit)," Bolick wrote in the motion. "It is perverse to attempt to thwart the children’s educational opportunities by invoking a desegregation degree intended to vindicate their educational opportunities."

The motion quotes from the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that ruled racially segregated schools unconstitutional to argue that the central point of desegregation is educational opportunity.

Prominent GOP politicians have attacked the Justice Department lawsuit. Last week, House Republicans, including Rep. John Kline (R-Minn) and Speaker Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), penned a letter accusing Holder of keeping black kids in failing schools. "We strongly urge you to consider the effects of this poorly conceived motion on the very children you profess to be protecting," they wrote to the attorney general. Jindal spent $500,000 in campaign money on a TV spot blasting the suit.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) jumped in on Monday during a speech at a Philadelphia charter school, saying he'd use every tool he has to hold Holder accountable. "The attorney general will have to explain to the American people why he believes poor minority children in Louisiana should be held back, and why these children shouldn't have the same opportunity that the children from wealthier and more connected families," Cantor said, according to Education Week.

In 2012, Jindal created Louisiana's voucher system for 380,000 students in low-performing schools. After the Louisiana Supreme Court struck down the program's funding mechanism, Jindal found another way to pay for it.

Vouchers have shown limited evidence of success, but advocates and politicians tout them as a way of leveling support for public and private schools. Opponents, though, say vouchers siphon money away from public schools and allow public money to support schools that teach religion.

Lakisha Fuselier, a black St. Martin's Parish mother who works as a cook, joined the motion against the lawsuit and said she wished vouchers were around when she attended school in Lafayette. "I wish my parents had better choices," she said. She attended one of the lowest-rated schools in her district, since shut down. Now, three of her children attend Holy Family Catholic School. "They're getting religion out of it, where in public school there's no religion," she said. "That's important."

Some Louisiana schools that accept vouchers said on their applications to the program that they do not have services for special education students. But Fuselier said her son Albert, 9, has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, and his new school is better at dealing with his condition than his previous public school. "His teacher was real good. She took her time with him, she understood his sickness," Fuselier said. "It was a relief for me -- instead of getting a phone call for everything he did, they just corrected it."

Dillon sent her children to North Lake Christian School after she was dissatisfied with their experience in public schools. "Teachers would tell them, 'I'm tired of going over things with you -- you should know this,'" she said. "Here, they go above and beyond to make sure kids understand what they're being taught." When a public school teacher learned one of her children was eligible for the voucher program, Dillon said, the teacher told the child he was going to fail because he didn't know anything. "That's just really belittling," Dillon said.

School vouchers have become a partisan flashpoint for a Democratic presidential administration whose education policies usually garner Republican support. Traditionally, President Barack Obama zeroes out funding for Washington, D.C.'s, voucher program in his budget -- but after a back-and-forth with angry Republicans, funding gets restored.

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