A federal judge has ordered Louisiana to provide annual data to the federal government on the students participating in the state's private school voucher program.
The April 7 order by U.S. District Judge Ivan R. Lemelle of New Orleans appears to bring to a conclusion months of skirmishing between the state and President Barack Obama's administration over the voucher program and whether it will affect racial balance in the school districts still under court supervision for desegregation.
The judge largely sided with the U.S. Department of Justice, ordering the state to provide data about the racial background of students enrolling in the voucher program.
"We welcome the court's order as it rejects the state's bid to resist providing even the most basic information about how Louisiana's voucher program will affect school desegregation efforts," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement on Tuesday night. "This ruling ought to resolve, once and for all, the unnecessary dispute initiated by the state's refusal to provide data."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who has sharply criticized Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., over the administration's efforts in the case, claimed his own victory by noting that Lemelle had not given the Justice Department the length of time it had sought to review data before the state could award vouchers. He noted that the order does not give the federal government "veto power" over individual scholarship awards, an issue the Justice Department gave in on several months ago.
"I am pleased that the court rejected President Obama's Justice Department's attempt to establish a review period where bureaucrats in Washington would be able to reject scholarship awards solely because the child is not the 'right' skin color," Gov. Jindal said in his statement.
In his order, Lemelle said that for each round of voucher applications, the state must provide the federal government data on voucher recipients, their race, the public school they attended or would attend, and other information. The data is to be provided 10 days before families are notified of the award, not the 45 days the Justice Department sought.
The judge sided with the federal government in a skirmish over race classifications. The state had sought to exclude data on students who marked "black" as one of several race or ethnic categories they meet.
"The state is now suggesting, for reporting purposes, a 'new definition of black'" that would fail to take account of mixed-race students, the Justice Department said in a March court filing.
"Adopting the state's new proposed definition would thus undermine the United States' ability to accurately and fully count students in public and private schools by race to evaluate ... whether the voucher program has an impact on segregation in those schools," the Justice Department said in the filing.
Lemelle's order requires the state to include data for black students "defined as any student who indicated black either alone or as one of several race/ethnic categories."
The order makes clear that the federal government "may use the above information produced by the state in federal school desegregation cases," which potentially could lead to the challenge of specific voucher awards in cases that upset the racial balance in public schools still under desegregation plans.
Jindal's statement said the information-sharing process ordered by the judge "should not impede the scholarship program," which has some 7,000 participants this school year and is expected to grow. "The state will remain vigilant" to make sure the process does not impede the program in the future, the statement says.