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Vouchers and Desegregation Cross Legal Paths in Louisiana

The controversial private-school voucher program in Louisiana has become entangled with legal proceedings in Louisiana regarding desegregation, and the state's top education official is being asked to discuss the issue in U.S. District Court in New Orleans next week.

Last week on State EdWatch, I wrote about some steps forward for clarifying how schools can qualify for taxpayer funds through the voucher programs, which were approved by Louisiana's state school board. However, the new rules were not designed to assuage the fears of voucher foes like the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, since the approved agreement would only pave the way for public funds to begin flowing to the private schools in a structured fashion.

Now the Associated Press is reporting that U.S. District Court Judge Ivan Lemelle has summoned state Superintendent of Education John White and the state school board to discuss how the new voucher program, vigorously promoted by Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, before it was signed into law this year. Specifically, Lemelle wants to know how the shift in public dollars from public schools to private schools will impact the state's ability to meet desegregation requirements that date back to the Civil Rights era.

Court-ordered desegregation plans have been around for decades, but a Stanford study released in December last year reported that from 1991 to 2008, more than 200 medium and large districts were released from these court-ordered plans, and have found that their effects in reducing segregation have faded over time.

In U.S. District Court, the Tangipahoa school district in the Pelican State is arguing that it is losing a share of its Minimum Foundation Program money to the voucher program, thus making it harder for the district to work to be free of federal court oversight as far as desegregation is concerned. Tangipahoa's court filings are separate from a lawsuit brought by the LFT and others saying that the voucher program, essentially, should not be paid for with money intended for public schools, and that the law was passed improperly.

As the AP notes, the court is essentially asking White and state board members to explain why it should not block funding for vouchers and instead divert it to Tangipahoa's Minimum Foundation Program.

White and at least some board members probably don't mind opposition from the state teachers' union on vouchers, and may privately even welcome it in a certain way. But tying desegregation issues, and a local district's control over those issues, to the voucher program probably isn't as politically appetizing for state officials. We'll see what White and board members tell the judge.

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