Less than a week after the U.S. Department of Justice appeared to scale back its fight against Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's (R) school voucher program, Jindal is using the dustup as an opportunity to attack the administration, pitting the White House against some of its allies in the education world.
On Monday, Jindal sent President Barack Obama a letter inviting him to visit the schools in question. He wants Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to tour one of the private schools that accepts vouchers, and to talk to parents about their experiences in both the state's public and private schools. "I believe if you and the Attorney General are able to hear firsthand from parents about the experiences their children are having in the program, then you will reconsider the suit," Jindal wrote.
Jindal attacked the administration's motives. "The people of Louisiana do not understand how ripping low-income minority students out of good schools helps them achieve their dreams," Jindal wrote. "Even more ironic, your Department of Justice is attempting to use old rules designed to prevent discrimination against minority children to try and keep these children trapped in failing schools."
Representatives from the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but the voucher fight could put the administration in an awkward position. School vouchers funnel public money into private schools, and as an issue, it divides a bipartisan group of politicians that has coalesced around the modern-day movement known as education reform.
Republicans tend to favor vouchers, but Democrats generally oppose them, saying they starve public schools of taxpayer money while funding religious institutions. Obama has expressed mixed opinions on vouchers: Last year he zeroed out Washington, D.C.'s voucher program in his budget before later softening his opposition and restoring some funding. That doubts about the suit could exist within the administration emerged when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said during a radio segment that he was "not familiar" with the suit.
And Jindal seems to know just how divisive the issue can be among Obama's allies in the education world. "To date, your Administration has been virtually silent on this matter, perhaps hoping that it will just go away," Jindal wrote. "It will not go away, and the dreams of thousands of children will not simply fade away."
In August, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington, the Department of Justice filed suit against Louisiana, arguing that its school voucher program, which Jindal has dramatically expanded, violates long-standing desegregation orders in 34 school districts. The suit seeks a permanent injunction to prevent the state from awarding vouchers next school year without first seeking pre-clearance from a federal court.
Jindal has gotten a number of high-ranking Republican politicians -- some of whom often agree with Obama on education policy -- to stump for the voucher program. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who often supports the White House's education agenda, blasted the suit as "payback for political elections of the past."
Two weeks ago, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) joined other high-ranking House Republicans in criticizing the suit in a letter that accused Holder of trying to keep minority kids in failing schools.
Last week, the DOJ's acting assistant attorney general for civil rights Jocelyn Samuels filed an amendment saying that a resolution to the suit is in sight, because of a court order and Louisiana's having "finally agreed to provide" data on the voucher program. But the DOJ is still seeking to require pre-clearance for families in districts under desegregation orders.
In a letter to Boehner and his allies last week, principal deputy assistant attorney general Peter Kadzik wrote that he saw "a significant breakthrough" in the case. But Jindal was displeased, saying he would be dissatisfied with anything but the DOJ's decision to drop the motion entirely. "The federal government is attempting to retreat in name only, but is not backing off its attack on Louisiana parents," Jindal said at the time.
Last week, a group, composed primarily of minority families and represented by the Goldwater Institute's Clint Bolick, filed a motion asking the judge to dismiss the case. (That filing was quickly rejected, but Bolick said he plans to re-file). "We're still going round and round with the same battle of race. When is it going to stop?" said Mitzi Dillon. Dillon, a Covington, La., mother with two black children in voucher schools and one in a public school, is a named complainant in the motion. "So what if black kids are going to mostly white schools? They should be able to get equal education wherever they are, especially if the public school is failing."
Read Jindal's letter to Obama below:
Dear President Obama,
As you know, on August 22, 2013, your Department of Justice filed a motion in federal court attempting to force Louisiana parents who have children enrolled or wishing to enroll in the Louisiana Scholarship Program to receive authorization from the federal courts before joining the program for the 2014-2015 school year. As you are aware, if this suit were successful, it would effectively force thousands of low-income and mostly minority families to keep their children trapped in failing schools.
Ironically, this suit was first announced at the time of the 50 year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington. The people of Louisiana do not understand how ripping low-income minority students out of good schools helps them achieve their dreams. Even more ironic, your Department of Justice is attempting to use old rules designed to prevent discrimination against minority children to try and keep these children trapped in failing schools.
To date, your Administration has been virtually silent on this matter, perhaps hoping that it will just go away. It will not go away, and the dreams of thousands of children will not simply fade away.
I would like to invite you and Attorney General Holder to come to Louisiana to join me for a day at one of our schools that accepts Scholarship Program students. I am sure you would agree that it is critical to sit down with parents and students who are enrolled in the program to discuss their experiences at the new schools and how it compares to the experiences at their previous failing schools. I believe if you and the Attorney General are able to hear firsthand from parents about the experiences their children are having in the program, then you will reconsider the suit filed by the Department of Justice
In Louisiana, we have worked very hard to improve our public school system. During my tenure as Governor, we have increased spending on K-12 education by over 12 percent despite a reduction in our total state budget over the same period. We have also instituted reforms to demand excellence from public school teachers and administrators, and we have removed the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to operate in Louisiana.
We know our reforms are working. High school graduation rates have hit an all-time high, Louisiana is a national leader in student improvement at charter schools, and student performance is up at K-12 public schools statewide. Furthermore, average public school teacher salaries in Louisiana have increased by more than $2,000 over the past five years.
However, it takes time to fix some of our failing public schools that have been in disrepair for far too long -- time that our children do not have. Our children only grow up once and every single child, no matter race or income level, deserves an equal opportunity to get a great education. That is why we started the Louisiana Scholarship Program that gives kids a chance to escape failing public schools and have an opportunity to achieve the American Dream.
I think it is only right that you and Attorney General Holder join me and come visit a scholarship school in Louisiana to look into the faces of the parents and kids and try to explain to them why you want to force them back into failing schools.
Finally Mr. President, I would respectfully remind you of your own comments about what a great education means to our children. In the 2010 State of the Union address you said, "the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education ... And in this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential."
I agree with you Mr. President, and that is why the actions of the Department of Justice, which contradict and undermine the vision you described, are so frustrating.
I look forward to your response. The parents and children participating in the program deserve to have their voices heard.
Governor Bobby Jindal
cc: Attorney General Eric Holder