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Judge wants to assure La. voucher program doesn’t segregate schools

NEW ORLEANS — A federal judge on Friday gave state and federal lawyers 60 days to come up with a process by which the U.S. Justice Department can assure that Louisiana’s private school tuition voucher program does not contribute to segregation of schools.

The state contends the government-funded vouchers have no effect on racial balance, that no federal oversight is needed and that the U.S. Justice Department efforts to monitor the voucher application process will hobble it with bureaucracy. The Justice Department is seeking to review the state’s assignments of voucher students to make sure they don’t promote segregation in violation of an order from a 1971 civil rights era case, Brumfield v. Dodd.

U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle gave the two sides 60 days to propose ways of satisfying Justice Department concerns without obstructing the voucher program.

“What may have been a very good process in the 1970s might need a little tweaking in the 2000s,” he said at one point.

The statewide voucher program was pushed through the Legislature in 2012 by Gov. Bobby Jindal. It provides taxpayer-funded private school tuition to some low- and moderate-income families whose children would otherwise go to a low-performing public school.

The Justice Department, seeking to make sure the vouchers don’t affect racial balance, has asked for the right to review the state’s assignments of vouchers 45 days before they are finalized and before parents are notified that the assignments have been approved.

That, said Justice Department attorney Anuria Bhargava, would make sure that a child’s plans aren’t disrupted in the event that a review leads to the withdrawal of a voucher.

“We don’t want to be in a position where we disrupt the education process of students attending voucher schools,” Bhargava said.

But attorney Michael Kirk, arguing for the state, said the process sought by Justice attorneys would needlessly disrupt the state’s multi-part voucher application process. State Education Superintendent John White also has said the process would place a hardship on families by delaying notice on whether their children have been accepted in the voucher program.

Asked by Lemelle to suggest a less disruptive method, Kirk said, “I don’t see any way to give them what they want … without disrupting the program.”

Kirk also said the Justice Department’s stated aim of making sure vouchers don’t promote segregation in public schools isn’t an issue in Brumfield v. Dodd. He said the pertinent order in that case was filed to stop the state from giving aid to private schools that segregate — something the state now prohibits.

Smith said Friday afternoon the state will look for a method of providing Justice lawyers with the information they want without interfering with the program. However, he added: “If they’re going to insist on some involvement in the operation of the program that would take away from Louisiana families the right to choose where there children go to school, there’s not going to be an agreement.”