Last Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” We have come a long way in those 50 years. Fifty years ago the federal government used the power of the federal courts to help end Jim Crow laws, particularly in the realm of education. Now, the government is trying to use the federal court system to oppress African-American youths in failing public schools. You heard right: The other week, Attorney General Eric Holder filed suit in federal court to block implementation of Louisiana’s voucher program. Not only is the government’s position morally repugnant, it is also legally without merit.
The program, titled the Louisiana Scholarship Program, “empowers low-income families with the same opportunity as more affluent parents already have — the financial resources to send their child to the school of their choice.” Parents of children in schools with a C, D, or F grade can apply for a voucher that provides them the financial means to enroll their child in a participating private school. How insidious. Here are the facts about the program:
In the first year of the statewide program, more than 10,000 students applied for a scholarship and close to 6,000 scholarships were offered to families. Nearly 5,000 students accepted a scholarship and enrolled in a state-approved private school for the 2012-2013 school year. Ninety-one percent of scholarship students are minority. Of those students previously enrolled in public school, 14% attended a C school, 69% attended a D school, and 17% attended an F school.
A scholarship program that allows minority students in failing public schools to get a decent education at a private school for the same cost? Clearly this program is the work of a vast right-wing conspiracy. Given the above facts, the federal government’s attempt to halt the program would have the effect of putting thousands of minority students, currently receiving good educations, back into failing public schools where they will continue to be failed by the public education system. As I stated above, a morally repugnant position for the government to take.
The government’s legal position is that the voucher program impedes 50-year old desegregation orders still in place for 34 Louisiana school districts. The government’s complaint states: “The voucher recipients were in the racial minority at the public school they attended before receiving the voucher.” A recent Wall Street Journal article stated the government’s case a better way: “In other words, Justice is claiming that the voucher program may be illegal because minority kids made their failing public schools more white by leaving those schools to go to better private schools.” Never mind the fact that by allowing minority students to attend private schools, those students are, per a number of studies on voucher programs in other cities, matriculating at a more diverse school.
Even more dubious, the government’s complaint claims to have jurisdiction over the voucher program, even the parts not administered in districts subject to desegregation orders. Such an overreach calls into question why the government is justifying its challenge on the grounds of racial integration. If ensuring integration were the government’s real concern, the challenge could have been limited to those parts of the program administered in the 34 districts. Challenging the voucher program as a whole leads to the conclusion that the government doesn’t care about integration, just about killing a program that teachers’ unions, a key administration backer, oppose.
I am no expert but I doubt putting the interests of teachers’ unions above the welfare and education of minority students was part of the dream Dr. King had in mind those 50 years ago. Obama and Holder, who both rose to their current positions after obtaining outstanding educations at private schools, should not be denying those same educational opportunities to minority students.