Feds: Voucher program, integration at odds

President Barack Obama, left, and Gov. Bobby Jindal.
President Barack Obama, left, and Gov. Bobby Jindal.

For decades, education activists have argued that giving families a choice about where they send their children to school will improve public education for minority and low-income students. Now that idea is colliding with an even older strategy for improving education among the historically underserved: racial integration.

Those two goals aren’t always at odds with one another, but the battle between Gov. Bobby Jindal’s school voucher program and President Barack Obama’s Justice Department, which is asking a judge to temporarily block the program in much of the state, is illustrating that they certainly can be.

In a legal filing earlier this month, the federal government made a case that allowing families to choose their school through the voucher program may produce more racially homogenous schools if not properly supervised by a federal judge.

The Justice Department cites two cases in particular, one in which a number of black students used vouchers to leave a majority white school, and another in which a group of white students used vouchers to leave a majority black school. Each of those schools already had a racial balance that was out of whack with the rest of their district.

For instance, Independence Elementary School in Tangipahoa Parish was already 61.5 percent black in a district that is only 47.5 percent black; losing five white students to the voucher program, the federal government argues, reinforced “the racial identity of the school as a black school.”

Proponents of the voucher program see an irony in the Justice Department’s argument. About 90 percent of the state’s 8,000 voucher students are black. Only low-income families from C, D or F rated schools can qualify for the program.

So the moral quandary involved is this: Is it OK to advance a noble aim like integration by in effect telling mostly black, low-income families that they cannot choose their school, a right that well-off families have always been able to exercise by moving to a wealthier district or enrolling their children in private schools?

Advocates for choice argue that integration may have been the moral priority back in the 1960s, but giving students an escape hatch from failing schools should take precedence now, particularly when the programs intended to do so largely benefit black students.

“You have to try to figure out at the moment in history that you’re living through, what is the primary issue that has to be fought to ensure we have justice,” said Howard Fuller, chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. “The Department of Justice, in this particular instance, is on the wrong side of history in terms of what battles need to be fought.”

Fuller’s group is one of the most vocal proponents of the school choice case, which holds that choice gives poor students the opportunity to escape underperforming schools and prods those same underperforming schools to shape up or lose students and funding.

That’s not only the basis for Jindal’s voucher program, but the charter school movement that has taken over the school system in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina; neighborhood schools have been replaced by privately operated charters that take students from anywhere in the parish.

Fuller suggested that the department’s stand on vouchers may have less to do with the Obama administration’s stance on school reform — the president has generally not supported voucher programs but does back charters — and more to do with a broader effort to defend long-standing Civil Rights gains that have lately come under assault.

Recent Supreme Court rulings against affirmative action and the 1965 Civil Rights Act, combined with efforts by the Republican Party to toughen voter registration rules, may have put the Justice Department on the defensive for good reasons, Fuller argued.

“You could have a situation where the DOJ is looking at various different things that are happening across the country and saying, we’re not going to let anything happen that could even potentially be used to roll back victories that were won years ago,” Fuller said.

In fact, that is exactly what some opponents of the Louisiana voucher program are worried about.

In a sense, school choice — at least when it was restricted to the well-off — was once an enemy of school integration. In New Orleans and other urban centers around the U.S., federal desegregation orders in the 1960s hastened the movement of white and middle class families to suburban school systems or private schools. Families with the wherewithal to choose largely fled, leaving urban school systems to cope with student populations that were not just majority black but also heavily impoverished.

In 1975 a federal court intervened to try to stop Louisiana from abetting the flight of white families from integrated schools, ruling that the state could not provide funding for private schools that hampered desegregation efforts. It was in that case, Brumfield v. Dodd, that the Justice Department filed its motion against the voucher program this month, pointing out that the 1975 injunction “is still in effect.”

Nelson Taylor, an attorney for the plaintiffs in an ongoing desegregation case against the Tangipahoa Parish School Board — one of 34 parishes in the state under an active desegregation order — argues that Louisiana’s voucher program is another attempt to interfere with federal attempts to bring about integration.

It’s “just another round-about way of doing what the state tried to do 50 years ago,” he said.

If anything, Taylor said he is surprised the federal government didn’t intervene sooner. “I’m glad to see that the Justice Department is waking up,” he said.

Still, Jindal and the state’s top education official, Superintendent John White, argue that the feds have it backward. White pointed out that the Justice Department is even explicitly objecting to instances in which black students chose to leave a majority white school, rather than vice versa.

“That just seems ridiculous to me,” White said. “As a matter of public policy, it’s absurd.”