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Group says Justice move on vouchers unwarranted

Kevin Mcgill, Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A pro-voucher group dominated by African-Americans on Monday called on the Justice Department to end efforts to have a federal judge put the state's taxpayer-funded program for private school tuition on hold.

A U.S. Justice Department filing in a decades-old Louisiana desegregation case asks a federal judge in New Orleans to consider halting future voucher awards pending an analysis of how the system for the current school year has affected districts still under federal desegregation orders.

The department says 34 districts in the state remain under desegregation orders in court cases dating back to the civil rights era, and at least 22 of them have schools that accept vouchers. The filing says there is evidence that voucher awards last year caused further racial unbalance in 13 of those districts.

The pro-voucher Black Alliance for Educational Options said the Justice Department should drop the effort.

In a news release, BAEO president Kenneth Campbell said the organization acknowledges "Louisiana's ugly and racist history" in efforts to undermine desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s. "Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to equate the current scholarship program that provides the only avenue for low-income children to escape failing schools to past efforts that supported and encouraged 'white flight' 40 years ago," Campbell's statement said.

The filing late Friday by the Justice Department in a desegregation case known as Brumfield v. Dodd is the latest challenge to a broad education overhaul Gov. Bobby Jindal pushed through the Legislature in the early days of the 2012 session. It included major alterations in the power of school boards, more independence for district superintendents, reduction in the teacher job security policy known as tenure and the statewide expansion of the voucher program piloted in New Orleans.

Opponents have attacked various aspects of the plan with mixed success. The latest possible court setback came this month in Monroe, where a judge ruling in a case brought by a teacher facing possible firing said the termination and appeal process outlined in the law was unconstitutional. Jindal's office has said the ruling will be appealed.

A state judge in Baton Rouge had declared the legislation unconstitutional earlier this year, saying it was the result of legislation that contained too many objectives. But the state Supreme Court ordered a review of that ruling. The review is pending.

Friday's filing, followed months of back-and-forth between state education officials and the Justice Department.

"The United States' review of information provided by the State indicates that, in the 2012-2013 school year, the State awarded scholarships to at least 570 students from 22, or nearly two-thirds, of the school districts operating under federal desegregation orders. In 13 of those school districts, State action in issuing vouchers to students caused the schoolwide racial demographics to stray further from district-wide demographic percentages and resulted in an increase in racially disproportionate representation in 34 historically segregated schools," the filing said.

It was unclear when U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle will rule or hold a hearing on the Justice Department motion.

The voucher program offers taxpayer-funded tuition to public school students from low- to moderate-income families attending low-performing public schools. An estimated 8,000 students are using vouchers to attend private schools this year.

Opponents of the voucher program say it bleeds badly need resources from public school systems.

Performance of voucher students in the still-young program has been uneven. Voucher proponents can point to strong performance at some schools. However, statewide, standardized scores for third- through eighth-graders show 40 percent of voucher students scored at or above grade level this past spring, compared to the state average for all students of 69 percent.