House GOP Leaders Question Holder Over School Voucher Suit (Updated)
Posted at 1:42 p.m. on Sept. 17
Updated 3:31 p.m. | The top four House Republicans have entered the spat between the Justice Department and a Louisiana school voucher program.
Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers all signed off Tuesday on a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. The message? Don’t “shut down a successful private school choice program in Louisiana that is providing hope to students and families.”
Joined by House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., and Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., who chairs of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, House leaders asked Holder to explain his agency’s move to block Louisiana from implementing a 5-year-old school choice program for low-income students in school districts with existing desegregation orders.
“The department’s allegation that the Louisiana Program could impede the desegregation process is extremely troubling and paradoxical in nature,” the lawmakers write. “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 could provide countless children the opportunity to receive a better education.”
They conclude the letter by asking Holder to respond to four key questions by Oct. 1, including one which asks “how your efforts to revoke scholarships and eliminate education choices will help students — particularly low-income and minority children — access better education opportunities and a pathway to a brighter future.”
The issue is close to Boehner’s heart: His very first sponsored bill as speaker was a piece of legislation to re-institute a voucher program for students in Washington, D.C.
The decision to put leadership heft behind a state issue also comes at a critical time for Congress looking to overhaul of the nation’s education system.The House GOP-passed bill in July did not include a school choice program, which lets students in lower income brackets use vouchers to attend certain private and parochial schools — though it did contain an amendment, authored by Cantor, to encourage public school choice.
Such voucher programs are controversial in education debates, as opponents argue that the government money used to fund those initiatives would be better spent improving existing public and charter schools that serve a greater portion of the student population.
An August article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune described the Justice Department’s rationale for the lawsuit:
The Justice Department’s primary argument is that letting students leave for vouchered private schools can disrupt the racial balance in public school systems that desegregation orders are meant to protect. Those orders almost always set rules for student transfers with the school system.
Federal analysis found that last year’s Louisiana vouchers increased racial imbalance in 34 historically segregated public schools in 13 systems. The Justice Department goes so far as to charge that in some of those schools, “the loss of students through the voucher program reversed much of the progress made toward integration.”
The Justice Department provided CQ Roll Call with the following statement, arguing that the administration is not trying to shut down the voucher program.
The United States 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. To accomplish this, the United States needs specific information about the school voucher program – much of which Louisiana officials say they already collect. And indeed, the Department’s request is 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.”
A DOJ spokesperson said the department would review the letter from GOP leaders once it is received.