DOJ’s Louisiana voucher challenge could segregate schools further

Casey Given Editor, Young Voices
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Sometimes history reverses itself rather than repeats itself. Such is the case in Louisiana, where the U.S. Department of Justice is pushing for oversight over the Pelican State’s private school voucher program out of fears that it will violate federal desegregation orders. Last week, a federal court ordered both parties to work out an oversight plan that would keep the state’s program in place while allowing DOJ to review its socioeconomic makeup. Consequently, Justice could soon have veto power over individual students’ eligibility for school choice.

At first glance, Louisiana’s case seems like a scene that has plaid out numerous times throughout American history; a racially polarized Southern state introduces a voucher program to outcry by desegregation proponents and, eventually, to intervention by the federal government. In the Jim Crow era, several state and local school districts implemented vouchers as a way for white students to escape desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education. However, the days of Jim Crow are long gone and the nature of vouchers has drastically changed. As a result, Eric Holder’s ongoing challenge to Louisiana’s landmark school choice program could instead segregate schools in the Pelican State even further.

It’s no secret that public schools across America are very segregated as they stand today. Most states still monopolize public education for one school per neighborhood and fund it largely through local property taxes. As a result, American education today is largely a lottery of what zip code a child happens to live in. Poor children are sent to poor schools, and wealthy children are sent to wealthy schools. Unsurprisingly, this socioeconomic divide among school districts often follows racial lines, balkanizing public schools even further.

While Brown v. Board of Education racially desegregated schools in the 1960s by prohibiting states from establishing separate schools for different ethnic groups, it could not address the socioeconomic divide that still leaves many public schools with little diversity today. Vouchers, on the other hand, have become a powerful tool to bridge this gap over the past decade by empowering low-income parents with the choice to send their child to a private schools that would otherwise be unaffordable. As a result, thousands of minority schoolchildren across the country today now have quality educational options that before were largely only available to whites.

This diversifying effect is backed by hard evidence. The Friedman Foundation for School Choice recently conducted a survey of studies that compare racial diversity in public schools to nearby private schools that accept vouchers. Seven of the eight studies with empirically valid methodologies found vouchers have a positive effect in major American cities like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and the District of Columbia. The one outlying study found no effect, positive or negative.

Ironically, Louisiana is already experiencing these positive effects through their voucher program.  One recent study by Boston University voucher expert Christine Rossell found the program improved integration in St. James and Lincoln parishes and had “no negative effects on school desegregation” in the state overall. That’s because 85 percent of students receiving Louisiana’s 6,800 vouchers are African-American, bringing a quality private school education within reach for the very first time for many of them.

In fact, Louisiana’s vouchers are only available to students from families with incomes below 250 percent of the poverty line who attend failing schools, ensuring that school choice is prioritized for children who need it the most. But, apparently empowering low-income, largely minority children with educational options is segregation in the Obama administration’s eyes.

Consequently, Justice’s requested oversight of Louisiana’s voucher program could have the very opposite effect of what it intends. Instead of ensuring that public schools have healthy diversity, its obstruction of school choice could confine minority students in failing public schools that threaten to reinforce socioeconomic divides in American society. Instead of progressing towards a more racially integrated society, the lawsuit could send public schools back to an era that the country would rather leave behind. Americans should object to DOJ’s dangerous challenge before the arc of history makes a 180-degree turn.

Casey Given is a policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity, specializing in issues related to education, labor, pensions. Casey’s commentary has appeared in The Daily Caller, Education Week, The Hill, RealClearPolicy, and The Wall Street Journal. Casey is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley.