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Pro-voucher group seeks to undo order requiring La. to file reports on school enrollment

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NEW ORLEANS — A group supporting taxpayer-funded private school tuition vouchers is appealing a federal judge's order that Louisiana must provide regular reports to federal officials on the state's voucher program.

U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle ordered the reports in April. He ruled that they are needed to make sure Louisiana complies with a 1975 desegregation order about state money going to private schools. The order requires that the state provide federal officials with lists of voucher applicants, information on schools in the voucher program, and enrollment and racial breakdowns on public schools and private schools in the voucher program.

A group of voucher families, represented by the conservative Goldwater Institute, say the ruling resulted from a Justice Department effort to "stifle" the voucher program. Also involved in the appeal is the Louisiana Black Alliance for Educational Options, a pro-voucher group.

State officials have said the ruling won't impede the program.

In August, lawyers for the Goldwater Institute's litigation arm, the Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, said Lemelle lacks jurisdiction over the voucher program because it has not been found unconstitutional and federal attorneys have never contended that it is.

Lemelle had ruled that the matter clearly is covered by an injunction and consent decree issued in the 1975 case.

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

Arguments about the program had largely centered on the funding and effectiveness of voucher schools, and whether the program bled away money needed by public schools. Then, in an August 2013 filing, the Justice Department filed a motion in the case of Brumfield v. Dodd, the desegregation lawsuit that resulted in the 1975 desegregation order.

Justice officials first sought an injunction blocking the issuance of future vouchers in districts under desegregation orders unless the state first obtained permission from the appropriate federal court — a move branded by Jindal and other voucher supporters as an Obama Administration attack on vouchers. Justice Department attorneys have since backed away from seeking an injunction but have continued to seek information.

Lemelle's April ruling was hailed by both the Jindal administration and the Justice Department as a victory, with Jindal saying the ruling won't impede the voucher program and didn't grant Justice officials "veto power" over vouchers. His press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Goldwater Institute efforts.

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