NEW ORLEANS — An appeals court judge had some strong questions Monday for a federal lawyer about reports that Louisiana must present about its school voucher program to the U.S. government.
Judge Edith Jones grilled Justice Department attorney Teresa Kwong about whether the government's efforts will help or hinder school desegregation.
Jones is on a three-member panel of the of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that will decide whether to uphold a district court's order for the reports, which the Justice Department says are needed to tell whether the vouchers are re-segregating any of Louisiana's 34 public school systems still under desegregation orders.
The Louisiana Black Alliance for Educational Options, a pro-voucher group, says the Justice Department is trying to stifle the program, which provides tuition for 7,400 low- and moderate-income children who otherwise would go to low-performing public schools. State officials did not appeal Lemelle's order.
Jones noted that the Justice Department got into the voucher matter via a case striking down a state program that helped segregated white private schools in the 1970s.
"Now you're putting hurdles in the way of blacks trying to move into integrated private schools," she continued. "How ironic."
Kwong responded that U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle's order does not call for an end to the vouchers, only for information,
In April 2014, Lemelle ordered the state to give federal officials lists of voucher applicants and information including whether they were approved for private-school funding and which school they will attend. He also called for other data reports throughout the year.
Jones read a section saying the state cannot award vouchers if it withholds the data.
"We do not read that as an automatic stop," Kwong said. She added that and the federal department is working with the state.
"If we uphold this order, we will hold you to that," Jones said.
Jones later asked Kwong if the order didn't create uncertainty, "semester after semester" about whether the program could continue, "and, one might add editorially, their first real chance to get an education."
"The data may help the state. We don't know," Kwong said. But, she said, the department has a duty to find out.
Clint Bolick of the conservative Goldwater Institute's Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, representing the Black Alliance, said, "I wish we could hold the Justice Department assurances at surface value. ... (Lemelle) has shown an inclination to be quite willing to rule against vouchers."
Bolick told the judges that Lemelle applied "a 40-year-old desegregation decree to an entire new program" when nobody's claiming it discriminates,
Members of the pro-voucher group and some of their children attended the hearing.
Shari Burks of Baton Rouge said afterward that her granddaughter Tamara had passed fourth grade in public school but turned out to be working on a second-grade level when she entered a private school under the voucher program. She was moved into second grade "and is now A-B honor roll," Burks said. She said she's hoping to get her tested so the 11-year-old can move up another grade before the end of the year.
"They really focus on the child and don't give up until they get that child where they need to be," she said.
Burks said seven of her 12 grandchildren are in the program. Three of them — Tamara and her 13-year-old sister and 7-year-old brother — live with Burks.