Obama Administration still trying to shut down Louisiana voucher program

There was much rejoicing when the Obama Justice Department announced it would no longer seek to crush the Louisiana school voucher program in court, on the absurd grounds that it interferes with federal desegregation efforts.  When that happy news was announced a couple of weeks ago, however, there were warnings from Governor Bobby Jindal and other defenders of the voucher program about more  subtle Administration efforts to strangle the voucher program with red tape.

As it turns out, those efforts aren’t all that subtle.  Red tape isn’t just being used as a noose; it’s been rolled into a club.  The Wall Street Journal reports that the Justice Department is essentially trying to take over the voucher program and run it into the ground:

Justice wants to review data on all voucher applicants including their race, public school district, whether and why they are granted a voucher and the private school to which they were assigned. And it wants that info at least 45 days before parents are notified that their kids will get a voucher. Why? Because the feds don’t want parents to know if the feds knock their kids from the voucher list.

DOJ is also claiming federal jurisdiction over the entire state, not merely the 22 districts under desegregation orders. Justice says it wants information on all voucher applicants, “including those in school districts not operating under federal desegregation orders, in order to review compliance with this Court’s [desegregation] orders that apply to private schools.” Translation: DOJ is threatening to audit private schools that admit voucher students. Shaking down private schools is another way to stunt the program.

At a November hearing, Judge Lemelle expressed skepticism of Justice’s case. Vouchers are “promoting racial balance in the school system,” he said, and “I don’t want to do anything to thwart that.” The judge has given the state and feds 60 days to agree to a review process. The Obama Administration should take this time to drop its morally offensive assault on the education of minority children.

This is even more outrageous than early suspicions that the Justice Department (whose name, under Attorney General Eric Holder, has become an Orwellian jest) would crush the voucher program beneath the weight of reporting requirements that Louisiana agencies would be unable to meet.  Out goes the fear that bureaucratic overhead would be added until the program becomes more trouble than it’s worth to the state government.  In comes a series of direct attempts to block vouchers while concealing the heavy hand of federal involvement from parents, who would likely sour on a program that makes them wait forever before mysteriously denying them access.  In comes a regime of intimidation tactics designed to frighten private schools away from the program, as the last pretenses of “desegregation” authority are abandoned.

Critics of the Louisiana voucher program have also tried to make some hay over mixed performance results, with a New Orleans Times-Picayune article headlined “Half of Louisiana’s voucher students at D or F schools in program’s first year, data shows” getting picked up by national media outlets.  Digging past the headline, however, we learn that only a relatively small subset of private schools that accept vouchers were rated on this system, because only the performance of children above a certain age is considered, and schools with less than 40 voucher recipients were not counted in the report (because it would be too easy to deduce who the voucher students were, and violate their privacy – a reporting restriction enforced by federal law.)

The older voucher students considered by this grading system are coming off several years spent in bad public schools.  Governor Jindal’s office touted their improved test scores, the cost-effectiveness of the program (with vouchers costing a little over $3000 less than the average public school tuition) and growing demand from parents who want to enter the program.  And as the Times-Picayune piece makes clear, the state has begun using the leverage granted by those vouchers to improve the pool of participating schools:

There are consequences for low scores: After two years, failing voucher schools may not take new publicly funded students. They may, however, keep the students they have.

Four schools appear to fall into that category: Holy Ghost Elementary, St. Alphonsus, St. Mary’s Academy and St. Peter Claver, all in New Orleans. White said staff were working with those schools to figure out how many seats they would list when applications open in January.

Two schools on Wednesday’s list have already left the program altogether: Cathedral Academy in New Orleans was shut down by the Archdiocese, and the state Education Department booted New Living Word in Ruston for alleged financial issues. Another school on the list, Bishop McManus in New Orleans, was barred from accepting new voucher students this fall due to low spring test scores.

[…] There’s a clause in the law that allows the department to pull schools based on “academic incompetence.” The department blocked seven schools in Jefferson and Orleans parishes from accepting new students this fall based on spring test results.

“We can shut those schools down,” [State Superintendent John] White said, and “we’ve demonstrated that we’re willing to use that discretion.”

It sounds as if the Louisiana voucher program is making considerable progress toward meeting its goals, unlike certain hideously expensive federal programs I could name.  The Administration that can’t give an honest answer about its own failed endeavors should spend less time trying to bludgeon the people who are getting things done with crazy reporting requirements and nonsense lawsuits.