By Russell Berman - 09/23/13 02:00 PM EDT
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) demanded Monday that Attorney General Eric Holder withdraw a federal lawsuit against the state of Louisiana over school vouchers — and vowed the House would act if Holder refuses.
The Justice Department is suing to restrict the Louisiana Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers for low-income parents to send their children to private schools. The department says the program is impeding civil rights-era orders to desegregate the schools.
Cantor assailed the move Monday during an education speech in Philadelphia, calling the lawsuit “absurd” and hailing the Louisiana voucher program as “a civil rights solution,” not a “violation.”
A battle over the lawsuit would be the latest confrontation between the Republican House majority and Holder, who has served as attorney general for President Obama’s entire tenure in the White House. In 2012, the House voted to find Holder in contempt over his refusal to turn over certain documents related to the "Fast and Furious" gun-running sting.
The Louisiana voucher program has been championed by the state’s Republican governor, Bobby Jindal. In the House, Cantor has sought to elevate education reform as part of his “Making Life Work” agenda to expand the GOP’s national appeal.
While many Democrats back expanding access to public charter schools, they, along with teachers unions, have long opposed private school vouchers as undermining support for public education. In his speech Monday, Cantor linked charter schools and voucher programs as serving the same goal of boosting education for low-income children.
“Just like the charter school program in this state and in this city, scholarship programs like the one in Louisiana are aimed at furthering equality for all kids — rich or poor, black or white,” he said. “The civil rights laws of this country were enacted to ensure equal access to education and opportunity, exactly what the Louisiana Scholarship Program is doing. The program is the very opposite of a civil rights violation. It is a civil rights solution.”
“The scholarship program in Louisiana challenges the status quo and provides hope to kids and their parents, but the government in Washington is trying to stand in the way,” Cantor said.
He added later in the speech, “Let me be clear: School choice is not an attack or an indictment on teachers or public schools.”
Speaking from a charter school, Cantor linked the school choice movement to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the desegregation movement of the 1950s and '60s. He touted the conservative Student Success Act that the House passed in July, along with an amendment he sponsored to allow parents to take federal money to send their children to public charter schools.
“The next time Congress considers a major education reauthorization, I believe we will adopt full school choice,” Cantor said.
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.