Voucher records denied
By KEVIN McGILL
NEW ORLEANS — After saying last August that a public records request would be fulfilled, Louisiana’s education department is again refusing to provide The Associated Press with records on how schools were chosen to participate in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s new statewide voucher program.
The Associated Press requested the records on June 12. The department initially rejected the request on Aug. 3. However, a spokesman for Education Superintendent John White later told an AP capital bureau reporter that the records request would be fulfilled in September — after the final voucher enrollment numbers were tallied.
But, on Monday, White said in a letter that the request for records, emails or other communications was “overly broad.” He also said records pertaining to the development of policies or deliberation among managers and staff are not public records.
“It was never our intention to provide documents that went against the advice of counsel and were not deemed public record,” Erin Bendily, a deputy secretary in the department, said in an interview Monday.
The AP’s June 12 request cited the state constitution and state law regarding public records. The request was for “any and all records, emails or other communications pertaining to the development of criteria used in selecting schools eligible to accept students in the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program or associated with the voucher/scholarship program created under Act 2 of the just-ended legislative session; and any and all such records, emails and communications regarding individual schools accepted or rejected for the program.”
The department’s initial rejection came more than eight weeks later, on a Friday evening, Aug. 3. The department did not cite open records laws in its denial. Rather, department spokeswoman Sarah Mulhearn’s email cited two court cases involving disputes in which the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office was denied documents from the Public Service Commission and the Department of Insurance.
The News-Star newspaper in Monroe has a lawsuit pending against the Department of Education over a public information request regarding the voucher program. That suit has not yet gone to trial.
More than 4,900 students from poorly performing public schools have taken advantage of the state’s newly expanded voucher program, which uses government money to pay their private school tuition.
The voucher program began on a limited basis in New Orleans early in Jindal’s first term. Jindal backers pushed a statewide expansion of the program through the House and Senate in the early days of the Legislative session. Backers tout it as a means of allowing low- and middle-income students to escape bad public schools.