MLK’s Dream Deferred

by John Fund
The Justice Department sues Louisiana in an effort to restrict the state’s school-voucher program.

The irony isn’t merely rich. It’s tragic. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech this week, the Obama Justice Department is suing the state of Louisiana to stop it from distributing school vouchers to kids seeking to escape failing schools.

Justice wants the vouchers stopped in the half of Louisiana school districts that are still under decades-old desegregation court orders. Justice’s lawsuit demands that students from these schools be barred from using vouchers to attend private schools unless a federal judge signs off. Justice argues that “many of those vouchers impeded the desegregation process.” A court hearing is tentatively set for September 19.

As an example of its concerns, Justice cited Independence Elementary School in Tangipahoa Parish. It notes that the school lost five white students because of the voucher program, and claims this “reinforc[es] the racial identity of the school as a black school.” Justice also cites Cecilia Primary School in St. Martin Parish as a majority-white school in a majority-black district; this school’s loss of six black students is “reinforcing the school’s racial identity as a white school.” This is bean-counting madness.

Louisiana’s legislature passed vouchers in 2008 to help low-income New Orleans students displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The Louisiana Scholarship Program went statewide in 2011, giving students the chance to attend schools of their choice if they came from low-income families and were attending schools rated fair, poor, or failing by the Louisiana Department of Education. 

State education superintendent John White is appalled by the lawsuit. “It’s a little ridiculous” to engage in racial bean-counting when the real issue is the huge number of schools that fail students, he told the Associated Press. He also lamented that the old desegregation orders used to combat racism were now being used to trap black students in miserable schools.

White noted that schools are banned from participating in the voucher program if they practice segregation or discrimination. The program was declared constitutional by Louisiana’s supreme court earlier this year.

Governor Bobby Jindal, a staunch supporter of the program, issued a swift reaction: “Make no mistake — this motion is a threat to the children in our state who only get one chance to grow up and deserve the opportunity to get the best education so they can pursue their dreams.”

The voucher program has proved highly popular. A survey earlier this year from the Louisiana Federation for Children and the Black Alliance for Educational Options found that nearly 93 percent of parents are happy with their child’s scholarship school. Seven voucher schools that haven’t performed well have been dropped by the program, an accountability measure almost never applied to public schools no matter how profound their failure.

The lengths to which the Obama administration will go to fight vouchers are remarkable. Ever since it took office in 2009, it has tried to kill the federally funded Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington, D.C. In 2010, Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas found that the graduation rate for Opportunity Scholarship recipients was 91 percent. In D.C. public schools, the graduation rate was 56 percent. We have a president more interested in the agenda of teachers’ unions than in helping inner-city kids escape failing schools.

Justice’s lawsuit has a real chance of disrupting the lives of voucher students. It’s been assigned to Judge Ivan Lemelle, a liberal activist who ruled last November that parts of Jindal’s education-reform package were unconstitutional. The state is appealing Lemelle’s ruling in that case.

In King’s 1963 speech, he told of his “dream” that his four children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

That dream remains noble, but it hasn’t been advanced by a civil-rights leadership that opposes school choice and often follows an “I have a scheme” method of activism. As liberal journalist Margaret Carlson of Bloomberg News said last Friday: “We’ve gone from Martin Luther King to the Reverend Al Sharpton, and . . . it’s very dispiriting.” It’s also deplorable that King’s dream has been sullied by an administration that claims King’s mantle but acts against the interests of children so that they can be counted “by the color of their skin.”

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.