Next door in Louisiana, one of the most ambitious education reform efforts is underway. But it‚Äôs in danger of being torpedoed by misguided efforts of the U.S. Department of Justice, which could end up trapping poor and minority students in failing schools.
‚ÄúThe U.S. Justice Department is suing Louisiana in New Orleans federal court to block 2014-15 vouchers for students in public school systems that are under federal desegregation orders,‚ÄĚ the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported last week. ‚ÄúThe first year of private school vouchers ‚Äėimpeded the desegregation process,‚Äô the federal government says.‚ÄĚ
The first hearing on the case is set for Sept. 19.
‚ÄúThe statewide voucher program, officially called the Louisiana Scholarship Program, lets low-income students in public schools graded C, D or F attend private schools at taxpayer expense,‚ÄĚ the newspaper explains. ‚ÄúThis year, 22 of the 34 systems under desegregation orders are sending some students to private schools on vouchers. Last year, at least 570 students were affected; the program has expanded since then.‚ÄĚ
The Justice Department says the program threatens the racial diversity of existing public schools. It claims there is ‚Äúirrefutable evidence‚ÄĚ that vouchers have ‚Äúinterfered with‚ÄĚ the enforcement of the federal desegregation order.
What is that evidence? Apparently, last year five white students at Independence Elementary School left the school, which ‚Äúreinforced the racial identity of the school as a black school.‚ÄĚ
That‚Äôs out of nearly 150 white students in a school of 500 students. But whether it‚Äôs five students or 50 students, the Justice Department‚Äôs goals are clear. Diversity is far more important than education. Independence Elementary School performs below even the dismal state average.
It‚Äôs not just ‚Äúwhite flight‚ÄĚ the DOJ is claiming; the department‚Äôs suit also cites Cecilia Primary School, which lost some black students when the vouchers became available. That served to ‚Äúreinforce[ed] the school‚Äôs racial identity as a white school in a predominantly black school district.‚ÄĚ
The impact of vouchers on the racial makeup of a school is negligible ‚ÄĒ a number of studies show that.
But racial makeup is far from the most important thing here. Education is what the federal government and the state should be most concerned with.
‚ÄúSchool choice programs benefit most those who previously had the fewest educational options, particularly low-income families,‚ÄĚ the Cato Institute‚Äôs Jason Bedrick points out. ‚ÄúMinority groups that are disproportionately low-income therefore benefit disproportionately from school choice. The Department of Justice‚Äôs lawsuit will hurt the very students it is intended to help.‚ÄĚ
There‚Äôs one more lesson to take away from what‚Äôs happening next door in Louisiana (and what could serve as a model for Texas). It‚Äôs that we‚Äôve let the federal government have to big of a say in education.
It‚Äôs not simply a 10th Amendment issue, though to be sure, the Constitution strongly implies that education is a state-level matter. It‚Äôs also an issue of effectiveness. The more decisions we can make locally, the better. That‚Äôs because no one cares about our children more than we do ‚ÄĒ certainly not bureaucrats in Washington.
That‚Äôs why we‚Äôre watching what happens in Louisiana closely.