Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) is steamed.
Earlier this week the state was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice over its school voucher system, one of Jindal's major education initiatives.
"A week ago, 7 o'clock at night, I find out that [U.S. Attorney General] Eric Holder, at the Department of Justice, is filing suit against the state of Louisiana -- now listen to this -- to force these children to go back to failing schools," Jindal said Friday at an Americans for Prosperity Foundation conference. The audience booed loudly.
School vouchers use public money to help students pay for private, and often religious, schools. In 2012, Louisiana passed a bill that created a voucher system for about 380,000 low-income students who attended public schools that received a C, D or F grade from the state. About 8,000 students were slated to receive the vouchers this school year, but Louisiana's Supreme Court struck down the law this spring, with Justice John Weimer citing the program's funding mechanism.
Jindal found a separate pot of $40 million to pay for this year's vouchers. But the lawsuit, he said, jeopardizes a group of low-income students who previously attended failing public schools and whose parents sought an alternative.
"What's so atrocious is that Eric Holder, the Obama Department of Justice, [is] using the same rules intended to protect low-income children, intended to allow them to go to better schools, now wants to use those same rules to force these kids to go back to failing schools, because they are so beholden to the government unions," he said during his speech. "Can you believe that? We've got a message to Eric Holder, we've got a message to President Obama: The American dream is alive and well in Louisiana. We're gonna fight for those children."
In education, more than any other area, the Obama administration has found common ground with Republicans by supporting policies that counter teachers unions' preferences. Even former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney praised Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's Race to the Top competition during a primary debate. Far-right Republicans such as Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) have joined Obama-minded Democrats to promote charter schools.
But the vouchers have been the partisan sticking point -- every year, Obama zeroes out Washington, D.C.'s voucher program in his budget, setting off a predictable spate of partisan bickering.
The DOJ's new voucher suit came almost exactly 50 years after the March on Washington, and alleged that the vouchers made it harder to desegregate Louisiana's schools. The suit seeks to block the program during the 2014-15 school year in the 34 school districts that have been under federal desegregation orders for decades. The filing argues that in some schools, "the loss of students through the voucher program reversed much of the process made toward integration."
The timing was not lost on Jindal. "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.
But there is limited evidence about the success of vouchers, and the Louisiana schools that accept vouchers have their own problems. According to public records, some of the private schools in the program have reported they lack services for special-needs students. St. Angela Merici school's application, for example, noted it had no specific programs for students with autism or learning disabilities. Some were found to be teaching creationism and using a biology textbook that proclaims the existence of the Loch Ness monster.
Jindal's tirade about the vouchers, though, quickly turned into an indictment of the administration overall. "How does this happen?" he asked, regarding the voucher suit. "This happens when you get a federal government got so big, so intrusive, so powerful. This happens when you've got a president who trusts the government more than he trusts the American people to live their lives."
He then launched into a pastor-like refrain, asking the audience members if they predicted the Obama administration's big-government-style incompetence when the president was first elected.
"If I had told you four and a half years ago that this administration was going to use the IRS to go after conservative groups and political opponents, would you have believed that?" he asked. "No," the audience hollered.
"If I had told you four and a half years ago that our ambassador and three other Americans would die in Libya and that this administration would blame it on a YouTube video, would you have believed that?" he asked. "No," the audience shouted, again.
He asked the audience if it could have predicted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would say "what difference does it make" regarding the Libya episode.
Jindal concluded, "Is the Obama administration the most incompetent administration we have seen in modern American history, or is it the most extremely ideologically liberal administration we've seen in modern American history?"
He answered himself. "I'm going to quote Secretary Clinton: What difference does it make?"
CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this story misquoted part of Jindal's refrain, about the attack that killed four Americans in Libya. The language has been fixed. The story also misstated the sponsor of the conference at which he spoke. The conference was sponsored by the educational nonprofit Americans for Prosperity Foundation, not the advocacy group Americans for Prosperity.