The Obama Justice Department filed a civil rights lawsuit last month to stop Louisiana from giving vouchers to poor students in failing schools. The Justice Department claims that the vouchers disrupt racial balance in schools.
School integration remains important. But the Justice Department’s argument is weak at best.
At the two schools cited in the Justice Department suit there is no evidence that racial diversity has been hurt because of the voucher plan.
One is a school in which a white majority school lost black students. In the other example, a black majority school lost white students. But in both schools the use of vouchers resulted in less than one percent difference in the racial make-up of the schools.
In addition, 90 percent of the students receiving the vouchers are black students from families with incomes less than 250 percent of the poverty line. The voucher plan is not a return to the days of white flight from public schools.
And there is an even more important issue than school integration at stake: How can the Justice Department justify denying poor black students, the people with the lowest achievement record in U.S. schools, the rare chance to get out of failing schools and go to better schools? More than 80 percent of students in the voucher plan had attended poorly performing schools, rated ‘D’ or ‘F.’
This suit is the latest example of the Obama administration’s opposition to vouchers. The president has tried to eliminate funding for a Washington, D.C. voucher program more than once. Speaker of the House John Boehner had to make the D.C. plan a priority in budget negotiations to save it.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is on target when he calls the Justice Department suit a “political ploy.”
Concern over giving poor black students a chance to get out of bad schools is certainly not the issue so it must be politics. As the governor recently said: “The Department of Justice is filing suit against the state of Louisiana – now listen to this – to force these children to go back to failing schools.”
The politics of teacher union support for the administration seems to be the only explanation for why the administration would take a stand against better educational opportunities for black students.
Politics can blind both the left and the right when it comes to school choice, including vouchers. But a clear-eyed look at research that shows no connection between school choice and racial segregation of schools.
A study done at the widely respected Brookings Institution found no connection between the growth of charter school enrollment and student segregation. Based on nine years of federal data the study found that the rise of charter schools has not made a difference in the level of segregation in public school.
Another study done at the University of Wisconsin analyzed test scores from 22,000 schools with 18,000 children and found that poverty, not skin color, is the hidden force driving most failing schools.
Black students do get better grades and test scores when attending racially integrated schools with middle and upper income white students. But that is directly tied to getting those poor black students out of schools dominated by the culture of poverty, surrounded by other poor students and the problems children of any color bring to school because they are poor.
The bottom line is that the research shows is that it makes no sense to judge schools as good or bad solely on the race of students.
The Louisiana voucher plan being targeted by the Justice Department obviously has little impact on the racial composition of the schools cited in the suit since it has less than a 1 percent impact on their racial composition. But it has major impact on helping a few poor black students into schools where they have a better chance to succeed.
And no proven connection exists in Louisiana to show that charter schools or schools accepting vouchers have more segregated student populations.
With nearly 60 years in the books since the Supreme Court’s Brown decision to rule segregated schools an unconstitutional denial of equal rights, the nation remains aware of the persistent racial divide in public schools. And it true that black students in desegregated schools score better on tests. But that has more to do with escaping the stranglehold of poverty that with school choice.
In the years since Brown v. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision, school districts have used a variety of strategies to try to increase student integration, from busing students to creating magnet schools and charter schools to draws students of different races together.
But even with increased school choice the nation’s schools remain largely segregated by both race and more importantly by class.
The average black, Hispanic and American Indian student attends a school that is more than two-thirds minority. And research shows if a student is poor enough to qualify for the federal free lunch program that student is in a school in which two-third of the other students are also poor and qualify for the free lunch.
That is why the administration’s decision to tie school choice – specifically vouchers – to higher levels of school segregation is wrong on two counts.
First, school choice does not lead to higher levels of racial segregation in schools. And second, no parent, black or white, should be forced to keep their child in a failing school when there is another option.