NEW ORLEANS (AP) — House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican congressional leaders urged the Justice Department on Tuesday to end efforts that could block Louisiana from issuing new private school tuition vouchers in some districts.
The department filed a motion last month in federal court saying new vouchers should not be issued in districts under longstanding federal desegregation orders unless — and until — they are approved by a federal court. The filings say 34 school districts in Louisiana remain under desegregation orders stemming from civil-rights-era lawsuits, and that vouchers have been issued in at least 22 of them.
"We strongly urge you to consider the effects of this poorly conceived motion on the very children you profess to be protecting," says the letter signed by Boehner; House Majority Leader Eric Cantor; Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy; Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman of the Republican Conference; Rep. John Kline, House education committee chairman; and Rep. Todd Rokita, chairman of an education subcommittee.
The letter says the department's move could force students to stay in failing public schools and pressure other states to abandon similar initiatives.
Congressional Republicans are also seeking an explanation from Attorney General Eric Holder on why he believes the attempt will aid students, "particularly low income and minority children." They ask for detailed information on correspondence on the issue between Holder's department and the Obama administration, and on correspondence and meetings that Justice officials had with "outside groups" on the voucher issue.
The Justice Department motion was filed last month in a 1971 desegregation case, Brumfield v. Dodd. Federal lawyers say vouchers have impeded desegregation in some districts.
The department said in an emailed statement that the letter had not been received Tuesday afternoon.
"The United States is not seeking to end Louisiana's voucher program," the Justice Department said in its statement. "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."
The voucher program provides state-funded private school tuition for some students who are from low- to moderate-income families and who are assigned to low-performing public schools — schools graded with an F, D or C under the state accountability system.
Piloted in New Orleans in 2008, the program was expanded statewide as part of a broad overhaul of education policy pushed through the Legislature last year by Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican. An estimated 8,000 students are using vouchers to attend private schools this year.
Opponents say the program draws badly needed money from the public school system.
Jindal's office said Tuesday that 90 percent of the students in the voucher program are minorities.
Jindal, former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., are to discuss the issue at the National Press Club in Washington on Wednesday, according to Jindal's office.
"We appreciate the support of the House Leadership," Jindal said in a news release. "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 department's statement said its actions are "fully consistent with the Louisiana law that established the voucher program, which provides that the program is 'subject to any court-ordered desegregation plan in effect for the school system in which the public school is located.'"