Attorney: parents likely to appeal order for Louisiana to make voucher program reports to feds

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NEW ORLEANS — Five parents of students in Louisiana's school voucher program will probably appeal an order for the state to send reports about the program to federal attorneys, one of their attorneys said Monday.

The parents believe the U.S. Justice Department wants to dismantle the voucher program, said Jonathan Riches of the Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, the litigation arm of the conservative Goldwater Institute. The parents and the Louisiana Black Alliance for Education Options joined the suit to defend the program.

U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle ordered the reports in April, saying they're needed to make sure Louisiana complies with a 1975 desegregation order about state money going to private schools. In a decision signed Friday and filed Monday, the judge said he won't scrap that order.

The parents' motion said the 1970s case, which dealt with a state law providing textbooks and school buses to private as well as public schools, doesn't apply to the voucher program. That law was an attempt to evade desegregation orders while the vouchers are meant to help low-income children in low-performing public schools, wrote Riches and his colleague Clint Bolick.

Lemelle lacks jurisdiction over the voucher program because it has not been found unconstitutional and federal attorneys have never contended that it is, the motion argued.

"The voucher program clearly falls under the injunction and consent decree in this case," Lemelle wrote. He did not explain why.

He also rejected the group's argument that any link to the earlier Louisiana ruling had been broken by the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in 2002 that school voucher programs are constitutional if they give parents a choice among a range of religious and secular schools.

Lemelle said he had considered the earlier ruling, and Louisiana's voucher program is significantly different from the Cleveland program upheld by the high court.

Cleveland's school system sent checks to the parents, who endorsed them to a school chosen from "a number of different schools, public and private, secular and religious," he wrote.

Louisiana parents can list their preferences but students are chosen and assigned through a lottery that takes those preferences into account, he wrote. If a student is not assigned to a preferred school, they can either accept it or try in the next round, and scholarship payments go directly to the schools.

The "genuine and independent private choice" which the Supreme Court found critical to find Cleveland's program constitutional "does not exist in the Louisiana program," Lemelle wrote.

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