Republicans, Justice Department Butt Heads Over Louisiana School Choice Lawsuit

The department says it will issue a brief on the remaining issues by Nov. 15.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks in Orlando, Fla., on Aug. 30. Jindal has pressured the Justice Department to drop its legal challenge to his state’s school voucher program and said Tuesday the department’s claim it is backing down was a “PR stunt.”
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After weeks of mounting pressure from Republican lawmakers calling for the Department of Justice to drop its lawsuit against a school voucher system in Louisiana, the department said it was close to a resolution on Tuesday. But Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said the department's claims were "disingenuous" and that the two parties are no closer to a solution.

The department sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday, citing an amendment to its Aug. 24 lawsuit in which it claims it does not oppose the school voucher program, which gives financial assistance to low-income families who want to transfer their students from failing schools to private schools. The lawsuit asks for a permanent injunction that would prevent the state from awarding vouchers for the 2014-15 school year to students who attend schools in 34 districts that remain under desegregation orders, arguing that the process would upset the racial balance that the desegregation laws were meant to maintain.

[READ: Justice Department Attempts to Block Louisiana School Voucher Program]

"To be clear, we are neither opposing Louisiana's school voucher program nor seeking to revoke vouchers from any students," the letter says. "When properly run, state and local voucher programs need not conflict with legal requirements to desegregate schools."

The department says in the amendment that because the state recently agreed to give the government the information it requested – which students received vouchers for the 2013-14 school year, an analysis of the program's impact on the desegregation orders, and an agreement to create an annual program review – the only remaining issue is whether the program impedes the desegregation orders.

But Jindal attacked the department's actions in a statement on Tuesday, saying the amendment was merely a "PR stunt" and that the information in question does not actually exist.

[ALSO: Alabama School Choice Law Faces Legal Challenge]

"While attempting to rebrand its legal challenge as merely an attempt to seek information about implementation of the scholarship program, the administration's real motive still stands - forcing parents to go to federal court to seek approval for where they want to send their children to school," Jindal said in a statement. "The administration claims the state is suddenly providing information, when in reality, the information the federal government is seeking does not even exist yet. And they know it."

"The only real retreat is to drop the lawsuit entirely and move on from this backwards lawsuit that is trying to deny equal opportunity for Louisiana children," he added.

Since the department's initial filing, the issue has become a volatile topic for politicians, as Jindal and other Republicans – including Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee – have publicly voiced their opposition to the lawsuit, condemning it as an overreach of federal power that forces minority students to stay in failing schools.

[OPINION: Families Should Have School Options]

On Thursday, Alexander said in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder that the lawsuit was "misguided" and should be dropped. "While I acknowledge the Department of Justice's responsibility to monitor compliance with federal desegregation orders, I believe that this motion continues unwarranted interference with an innovative state effort to expand educational opportunity for all students," said Alexander, who also served as education secretary during the George H. W. Bush administration.

And Monday, Cantor said in a Philadelphia speech on education reform that if the department refused to withdraw the lawsuit, he would "leave no stone unturned" in keeping Holder accountable for the decision.

"The attorney general will have to explain to the American people why he believes poor minority children in Louisiana should be held back, and why these children shouldn't have the same opportunity that the children from wealthier and more connected families," Cantor said.