Locals react to DOJ lawsuit over school vouchers

Published: Aug. 26, 2013 at 10:21 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 2, 2013 at 10:21 PM CDT
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New Orleans, La. — Governor Bobby Jindal has not minced words in criticizing the U.S. Justice Department's lawsuit involving the state's school voucher program, and Monday some locals in the educational arena had their say on the issue.

Saturday, the federal government filed suit to block school vouchers for public school students in school districts which remain under federal desegregation orders. Jindal called the attempt to block the vouchers "shameful."

The vouchers, or "scholarships" as they are called by the Jindal administration, allow parents of public school students attending schools with ratings of C, D, or F to use public tax dollars to pay for private school education.

"It's giving kids the opportunity to get the best education for them and it's the education that their parents want, said Dr. Jan Daniel Lancaster, superintendent of the Office of Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

She said between 3,500 and 4,000 public school students are using vouchers to attend catholic schools in the metro area.

The Justice Department asserts that vouchers can adversely impact the racial balance in public schools by encouraging students to attend private schools. Maintaining racial balance, the federal government said, is at the heart of the desegregation orders.

"We want to look at that data, but the voucher... the Scholarship for Excellence Program... serves a lot of minority students and it gives them the opportunity to come into our schools and get a very good education. So there again we need to look at what the data shows as far as the impact," said Lancaster in response into the DOJ's arguments.

"I find it preposterous," said Eric Lewis of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. He said students must continue to have opportunities for improved education, including vouchers.

"It gave parents, you know, the ability to actually choose where they want to send their kids. And so this motion by the Department of Justice we think is wrong-sided and would implore them to reconsider taking this action," Lewis stated.

Close to three-dozen Louisiana school systems could be impacted by the DOJ's legal actions, including those in Jefferson, St. John, St. Tammany and Plaquemines Parishes.

"Our main focus here is improving teacher effectiveness which leads to higher student achievement. I understand what the Department of Justice is doing, but we as a district have to identify why students are turning to vouchers in our system," said Kevin George, superintendent of Schools in St. John Parish.

Teachers unions have long criticized vouchers. They maintain that vouchers siphon away sorely needed resources for public schools.

"We need all the resources we can get to make improvements for all children. It should not be just a few children," said Meladie Munch, president of the Jefferson Federation of Teachers.

The state's school voucher has been the subject of other controversies. In fact, the state Supreme Court ruled that the way Louisiana was funding the so-called scholarships is unconstitutional. It was an argument made by statewide teachers' unions against the governor's push to expand vouchers.

"We had issues with the vouchers because the state was taking local tax dollars which were dedicated for local education purposes," said Munch.

About 8,000 students around the state are using vouchers this school year.