NEW ORLEANS — The Justice Department touted what it called a "breakthrough" Tuesday in a dispute with Louisiana over its private school tuition voucher program, but Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal said no resolution has been reached, calling the department's announcement a "PR stunt."
The department filed a motion last month in federal court claiming new publicly funded vouchers should not be issued in school districts under longstanding federal desegregation orders unless approved by a federal judge. Jindal quickly criticized the filing as an attack on a program designed to rescue children from failing schools. House Speaker John Boehner and other GOP congressional leaders followed with a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder that was critical of the effort.
On Tuesday, the Justice Department released a letter responding to Boehner, an Ohio Republican. The letter said attorneys for both sides met Friday and the state "agreed to provide information on the voucher program that the Department had originally requested in May 2013 and that the State had, up until now, largely withheld."
The letter also notes that U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle, following a telephone conference among lawyers last week, ordered the state to provide an analysis of the voucher awards for the 2013-14 school year by Nov. 7.
"This represents a significant breakthrough. We are pleased that Louisiana finally has agreed to provide the necessary information to the Department," Principal Deputy Attorney General Peter J. Kadzik said in the letter.
Jindal's office quickly sought to dispel any idea that a resolution might be near.
"While attempting to rebrand its legal challenge as merely an attempt to seek information about implementation of the scholarship program, the administration's real motive still stands – forcing parents to go to federal court to seek approval for where they want to send their children to school," Jindal said in a news release.
"The Obama Administration's letter is disingenuous," Jindal added. "The administration claims the state is suddenly providing information, when in reality, the information the federal government is seeking does not even exist yet. And they know it."
The state's voucher program offers taxpayer-funded private school tuition to students from low- to moderate-income families attending low-performing public schools. Also known as a state scholarship program, it was piloted in New Orleans in 2008 and expanded statewide as part of a broad education overhaul that Jindal pushed through the Legislature in 2012. An estimated 8,000 students are using vouchers to attend private schools this year.
Opponents of the voucher program say it drains badly need resources from public school systems.
Voucher proponents can point to strong performance at some schools. However, statewide, standardized scores for third- through eighth-graders show 40 percent of voucher students scored at or above grade level this past spring, compared to the state average for all students of 69 percent.
A group promoting support of vouchers among African-Americans, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, held a news conference at the federal courthouse in New Orleans on Tuesday, announcing its intervention in the suit.
"I believe that the Department of Justice understands that their lawsuit is frivolous," said former state Sen. Ann Duplessis, an original legislative backer of the voucher program. "I believe we are playing with children's lives."
Pete Yost reported from Washington. Associated Press reporter Melinda Deslatte, in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this story.