Senator Lamar Alexander to Attorney General Eric Holder: Stop interfering in Louisiana's voucher program

Lamar Alexander

Dear Attorney General Holder:

I request that the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights immediately withdraw the motion it filed last month in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, in which it asked the court to bar the state of Louisiana from awarding vouchers that would enable low-income students in many areas of the state to attend private schools.  The motion, filed on August 22, 2013, alleges that the Louisiana Scholarship Program impedes federal court orders to desegregate 34 school districts with a history of legally segregated schooling.

While I acknowledge the Department of Justice’s responsibility to monitor compliance with federal desegregation orders, I believe that this motion constitutes unwarranted interference with an innovative state effort to expand educational opportunity for all students. 

The motion is misguided for two reasons.  First, any impact the voucher program has had on desegregation has been negligible, as is clear from the only two examples offered to the court.  In one school serving more than 700 students, 30 percent of whom were black, the departure of six black students with vouchers reduced the share of black students by less than one percentage point.  In the other, the departure of six white students had a similarly minute effect.  In both cases, the departure of students with vouchers caused their previous schools to drift slightly away from the racial composition of the district as a whole, the level of integration court orders use as a target.  Yet the motion alleges, implausibly, that these changes “increased the racial identifiability of these schools” and “reversed much of the progress made toward desegregation.”  Given the Department of Justice’s enormous discretion in choosing which enforcement actions to pursue, and its repeated claims that its budget is stretched too thin, it is hard to see how this case is a good use of federal resources.

Second, to the extent that the desegregation orders in these districts would preclude their students from using vouchers, the Department of Justice should be seeking instead to amend those orders to allow the program to operate as designed.  Enacted in 2012, the Louisiana Scholarship Program seeks to provide new and better school choices to low-income students who would otherwise attend failing public schools.  To be eligible for a scholarship, students must have a family income of less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line and must be entering or enrolled in a school identified by the state as low-performing. More than 90 percent of students who used a scholarship in 2012-13 were minorities.  Moreover, all private schools participating in the program must comply with the terms of a 1975 case prohibiting the state from supporting private schools that uphold segregation or discriminate on the basis of race.

Preliminary results suggest that the program is succeeding in providing new and better school choices for eligible families.  The Louisiana Department of Education reports that the test scores of participating students have improved.  And a February 2013 survey conducted by the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Louisiana Federation for Children found that 93 percent of participating parents were “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their child’s current school.

I therefore call on you to direct the Office of Civil Rights to withdraw its motion immediately and to cease and desist from any further activity that would interfere with Louisiana’s innovative efforts to provide high-quality school choices for all of its students.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

Lamar Alexander is the current senior United States senator from Tennessee.

This open letter originally appeared on the U.S. Senate's website.

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