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Judge Reaffirms Student-Data Order in Louisiana Voucher Case

A federal judge is standing by his order that Louisiana must provide student data to the federal government about its private-school voucher program under a nearly 40-year-old statewide desegregation case.

U.S. District Judge Ivan R. Lemelle has rejected a motion from an intervening group of parents of voucher students that asked the judge to vacate his April 7 order. That order was largely agreed to by the state and the U.S. Department of Justice after months of fighting over federal oversight of the voucher program.

The Justice Department wants to be sure vouchers do not cause racial imbalances in school districts still under desegregation plans. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal argued the Justice Department's efforts were out of step with the times and were meant to thwart educational innovation that would benefit minority schoolchildren. But state officials eventually agreed to the plan to provide the Justice Department with racial data about students in the program.

Five parents and a non-profit group, the Louisiana Black Alliance for Educational Options, intervened in the long-running state desegregation suit, Brumfield v. Dodd, which was filed in 1975 and reached a critical consent decree in 1985, to press the interests of the 7,000 children using vouchers.

"This court has made no finding that the scholarship program violates the [U.S.] Constitution or flows from such a violation," said a May 5 motion filed by the intervenors, who are represented by the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based policy and legal organization. "Such a finding is absolutely necessary in order for this court to exercise jurisdiction over the scholarship program."

The group said the state voucher program does not flow from the constitutional violation identified in the original Dodd case—a statewide program of transportation and textbook aid to private schools that was aimed at evading desegregation orders.

"To the contrary, the scholarship program is designed to expand educational opportunities for economically disadvantaged children in low-performing public schools," the intervenors' brief said. "Clearly a program intended to aid such children does not 'flow' from a program that was designed to suppress such opportunities."

In his latest ruling in the case, dated Aug. 1 and made public Monday, the federal judge rejected the intervenors' claims.

First, Lemelle said, he has consistently ruled since last November that he has jurisdiction over the voucher program under the ongoing Dodd consent decree. "The voucher program clearly falls under the injunction and consent decree in this case, granting the court subject-matter jurisdiction," the judge said.

Secondly, the judge rejected arguments that a significant change in federal case law on vouchers affected whether his court had jurisdiction over Louisiana's program. The intervenors cited the U.S. Supreme Court's 2012 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which upheld against a First Amendment challenge a private-school voucher program for Cleveland schoolchildren that permitted the participation of religious schools.

The intervenors argued that because it is Louisiana parents, not the state, who are making the decision where to send their children using vouchers, the voucher program could not constitute state aid to private schools in potential violation of the Dodd decree.

Lemelle said he had taken the Zelman decision into account in his November ruling, and that Louisiana's program was different than the Ohio program upheld in Zelman in that Louisiana uses a lottery to assign voucher students to their preferred schools.

"Louisiana parents thus do not exercise true private choice in their selection of schools, as was the case with the Zelman families," the judge said.

Furthermore, the judge said, "100 percent of the voucher funds will be spent on private schools subject to the orders of this case—as all private schools in Louisiana receiving state aid are subject to the 1985 consent decree prohibiting funding to advance segregation." 

In a statement on its Web site, the Goldwater Institute said it will "swiftly appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit." 

The New Orleans-based appeals court has already ruled in the latest case once, overturning Lemelle's order barring intervention by the group of parents and the black alliance.

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