School Choice and Individual Liberty

In early 2009, one of President Obama’s first acts in office was to end the DC school voucher program. He even sought to revoke scholarships that had already been promised to children for the coming term. The children who benefitted from the program were mostly of African American descent, a constituency Obama carried by 96% in 2008. The voucher recipients’ parents likely voted for the President, trusting him with looking out for their families. What’s worse, two of the voucher recipients set to lose their scholarships attended Sidwell Friends, the same school where Obama’s children are enrolled. Ever since taking office, President Obama has maintained a pernicious fixation on rooting out school choice programs.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have instituted voucher programs. Voucher programs allow students from low-income families to escape failing schools. Parents who qualify may send their child to a private school or, in some cases, a better-performing public school in another district. The state either directly provides tax dollars or facilitates the distribution of private funds in order to cover tuition. A lottery system is used in all of the voucher programs to determine which children are selected.

Louisiana is the latest frontier in the fight for school choice. A student is eligible for the state’s program if his or her family lives at 250% or less of the poverty line, and he or she attends a failing school. The program has initially proven to be wildly popular and successful. Ninety-three percent of parents whose children receive vouchers approve of the law. That’s no surprise, given that, from 2011 to 2013 alone, there was a seven percent increase in math and literacy performance among voucher recipients. And it is reasonable to believe that those results will only improve as the program expands.

In August, the Justice Department abruptly intervened to halt the Louisiana Scholarship Program, the state’s voucher initiative, on the grounds that it exacerbates segregation in public schools. As students leave certain schools and migrate to others, the logic goes, the racial make-up at each end is changed. The Louisiana voucher program, according to the Justice Department, actually skews the racial balance between certain schools and their surrounding communities, thereby violating federal desegregation orders. The Justice Department claims jurisdiction in the case due to its authority to monitor the racial make up of schools within districts that are mired by a history of segregation. Vouchers worsen segregation in some schools that fall under the federal government’s purview, the Justice Department holds.

Note the slippery way that the Justice Department presents the data to support its case. The brief reads, “In the 2012-2013 school year, the state awarded scholarships to at least 570 students from 22, or nearly two-thirds, of the school districts operating under federal desegregation orders.” These scholarships, the brief holds, further skewed the racial make-up of thirty-four schools across thirteen districts. Percent changes of racial demographics within the schools in question are conspicuously absent from the Justice Department’s analysis. No information on the supposedly worsening segregation’s scale is readily presented.

The Justice Department cites two examples–tucked into footnotes–to back up its allegations of increased segregation: one school lost six students in 2011, and another lost five in 2012. Well, Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute did the math. The resulting racial demographic shifts in both schools amount to under one percent. It’s no wonder that the Justice Department found no statistically significant evidence that vouchers exacerbate segregation. A study by Education Next found that eighty-three percent of vouchers actually helped to integrate public schools, as 685 of the 828 vouchers examined lead to demographic shifts that left schools more racially integrated. The program reconciled the racial demographics of the failing public schools from which students were fleeing with those institutions’ surrounding communities. Put another way, the students who fled were already in schools in which their racial demographic was already over represented. So, the Louisiana Scholarship Program accomplishes what the Justice Department alleges it hinders.

Overwhelming bipartisan outcry has forced the Justice Department to stand down, if only temporarily. Governor Bobby Jindal, along with congressional leaders, has led a public campaign to expose the administration’s sinister tactics. In fact, Louisiana has agreed to continue to share data about its voucher program with the federal government so that it may continue to monitor the situation. The Justice Department claims it’s looking for worsening segregation as a result of the scholarship initiative. But it’s hard to image what the government is expecting to find, seeing as the vouchers actually integrate schools.

With its Louisiana intervention, the Justice Department invoked the federal government’s desegregation authority to trap children–who are disproportionately black–in failing schools. This government intervention perverted the intent of desegregation laws; poor and minority children will suffer if it succeeds. President Obama and Eric Holder must recognize the irony of invoking desegregation laws to limit opportunities for black children. The administration may well desire to help the poor and improve education. But the attack on Louisiana school choice exposes Obama’s primary dedication to liberal ideology, and the unending intrusion of government that it demands.

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