Louisiana has become ground zero in the fight over how to best educate low-income Americans.
Republicans and Democrats alike will turn their attention next week to a U.S. District Court hearing in New Orleans, where the Justice Department is suing Louisiana over its school-voucher program. The Obama administration wants to restrict the Louisiana Scholarship Program, which gives low-income families vouchers to send their children to private schools, saying it might lead to the re-segregation of state schools.
Under the Louisiana initiative, which has proved popular, students can use taxpayer dollars to transfer from failing public schools to private schools. The overwhelming majority of those taking advantage of the public money are minority students, state data shows.
Attorney General Eric Holder voiced concerns that the voucher program would significantly alter the racial makeup at the state's public schools, saying the education blueprint "frustrates and impedes the desegregation process." The Justice Department is seeking to halt the issuing of vouchers unless parents first receive court approval for the aid.
Republican leaders counter that the Obama administration is meddling in how parents choose to educate their children and preventing students from attending schools they could otherwise not afford, calling it the latest example of big government run amok.
The brouhaha has swiftly evolved into a national issue, with GOP officials framing the clash as a precedent setter in the battle over school choice.
“For many millions of kids, we need to come to the rescue and provide school choice across the country,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said during a trip last week to New Orleans.
“I have been around the country in several other cities to take a look and see what’s going on with the education reform movement in America,” Cantor added. “I have not seen progress like I have seen progress here in New Orleans.”
Cantor and other congressional Republicans support a bill that would devote Title I money directly to at-risk students, rather than it being awarded in a lump sum to local school districts. The Virginia Republican, in particular, has made education reform a central part of his political platform, inviting the debate over how to ensure students aren’t stuck in underperforming schools.
In advance of the Nov. 22 hearing, Louisiana officials put forward data that suggests the vouchers program enhances, rather than limits, diversity.
According to an analysis by Boston University political scientist Christine Rossell — commissioned by Louisiana officials — 30 of 34 state school districts saw a decrease or no change in racial imbalance after the voucher program was implemented. In the other four districts, Rossell said the impact on diversity was limited.
“Over 90 percent of scholarship students for the 2012-13 school year were minority students, the vast majority of whom were African American; and more than 85 percent of scholarship students for the 2013-14 school year are African American,” Louisiana Schools Superintendent John White said in a court filing that accompanied Rossell’s study.
Initial results of state standardized testing show that just 40 percent of voucher students scored at or above grade level last spring — well below the Louisiana average of 69 percent.
Defenders of the vouchers say that students who moved from failing schools were still adjusting to their new environments as the program expanded from the New Orleans area to statewide this year. Almost two-thirds of the voucher program test-takers were new to their schools this year.
Democrats’ objections to the Louisiana vouchers program centers around one contention: They argue that private-school vouchers undermine the public school system. Teachers unions, which are heavy Democratic donors, are also opposed to such programs.
However, the debate has put red-state Democrats, such as Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., in the awkward position of having to toe the party line while not coming out too vehemently against a popular program.
Landrieu has said that Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal should be "really and seriously" commended for trying to boost the state's educational performance, but that his efforts threaten to “pull the rug out from under some of the public schools by relying too much on vouchers.”