- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 17, 2013

House GOP leaders came to the defense of school-choice advocates Tuesday, calling on the Justice Department to reconsider its legal opposition to a popular school voucher program in Louisiana that gives some students from low-income families the chance to escape failing education systems.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also planned to raise the stakes in the ongoing battle by traveling Wednesday to Washington for a news conference on what the two Republicans call the Obama administration’s attempt to “deny children in Louisiana an equal opportunity to get a great education.”

The moves signal the Louisiana case has become the latest battleground in the politically charged issue of public versus private schools — and suggests that school choice could turn into a key issue in the 2016 GOP presidential contest, especially if Mr. Jindal and Mr. Bush jump into the race.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., House Speaker John A. Boehner and his leadership team said Tuesday the recent DOJ lawsuit — which warned Louisiana’s school choice program undermines decadeslong efforts to desegregate the classroom — is “extremely troubling and paradoxical in nature” and hurts the “very children you profess to be protecting.”

“If DOJ is successful in shutting down this invaluable school choice initiative, not only will students across Louisiana be forced to remain in failing schools, but it could have a reverberating effect and cause other states to feel pressured to shut down similar initiatives that provide countless children the opportunity to receive a better education,” the letter said.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, Republican Conference Chairwoman Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers of Washington and Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana, chairman of an education subcommittee, also signed the letter.

Dena W. Iverson, a DOJ spokesperson, said the government is not “seeking to end Louisiana’s voucher program.”

“The United States seeks a straightforward goal: to ensure that the state of Louisiana implements its school voucher program in a manner that complies with the U.S. Constitution and long-standing federal desegregation orders,” Ms. Iverson said.

Mr. Holder’s office asked a federal court in New Orleans last month to require the state to seek approval from a federal judge before it issues any more private school vouchers to students from any of the 34 public school systems that fall under desegregation orders, which requires the schools to achieve racial balance.

The lawsuit is based on a 1975 ruling that found the majority of the state’s black students went to segregated schools until federal courts ordered most schools to integrate. It also found that enrolling students in private schools with public funds interfered with desegregation efforts.

The lawsuit says that Louisiana issued vouchers to students from 22 of school systems under desegregation orders, and that if the pattern continues, “many Louisiana schools will become increasingly segregated, after decades of effort to desegregate.”

“The state of Louisiana’s use of public monies to award school vouchers without authorization from the appropriate federal court frustrates and impedes the desecration process in school districts operating under desecration orders and undermines those federal court orders,” the DOJ lawsuit said.

The battle underscores a growing partisan divide on education policy.

For their part, Democrats have long advocated for more taxpayer investment in public schools, while Republicans are increasingly touting school choice programs.

The GOP hopes the school choice push will help them broaden their electoral appeal by giving them a way to link their limited governing philosophy with minority families and other voters who want good schools for their children.

The Louisiana voucher program allows minority students from low-income families that are enrolled in poorly rated public schools to transfer to a participating private school or certain high-performing public schools at taxpayer expense.

In their letter, House Republican leaders said that 250,000 children are benefiting from school choice programs in Louisiana, 17 other states and the District of Columbia.

“Instead of undermining choice and opportunity in education, the administration should support state and local efforts to provide more education options,” the House leaders said.

They demanded that Mr. Holder provide them with an explanation by Oct. 1 of how blocking the program, known as the Louisiana’s Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program, will help students get a better education.

They also demanded that Mr. Holder turn over all correspondence his office has had on Louisiana’s voucher program with people inside and outside of the administration.

Mr. Jindal and Mr. Bush will appear Wednesday with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, where they plan to raise their concerns about the Obama administration’s legal challenge and highlight that 90 percent of the students in the program are minorities.

“We appreciate the support of the House leadership,” Mr. Jindal said in a statement to The Washington Times. “They are exactly right about the Obama administration’s backwards lawsuit that is only an attempt to curry favor with government unions and deny children an equal opportunity to get a great education. The Obama administration can try and ignore this, but the voices of parents who want to give their children a better education are only getting louder.”

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