Education Secretary Arne Duncan isn’t the only Obama crony who doesn’t trust parents of schoolchildren. The whole Obama administration has a track record of trying to squash programs that have given thousands of children better options to meet their educational needs. Within the last year, school-choice programs in the District of Columbia, Wisconsin, and Louisiana have been threatened by the Obama administration. In each case, parents and other advocates of choice are fighting back, and in Louisiana they have just won a major victory by forcing the Department of Justice (DOJ) to drop its attempt to halt the state’s voucher program.
Back in April, in its fiscal year 2014 budget request, the Obama administration once again renewed its annual attempt to zero out funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). Thankfully, the administration has been unsuccessful each time, as champions of school choice in Congress have ensured the OSP will remain fully funded. Launched in 2004, the D.C. OSP has given thousands of low-income children in Washington the ability to attend a private school of their choice. According to a U.S. Department of Education evaluation, the DC OSP has a 91 percent graduation rate, and nearly 90 percent of the students enroll in two- or four-year colleges.
Then in May, the administration threatened the country’s oldest school-choice program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). The DOJ sent a letter to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction alleging that the MPCP violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by discriminating against students with disabilities who wish to attend private schools.
The DOJ’s threat to file suit is an aggressive exploitation of a misstated statistic. In 2011 a state agency reported in a press release that “about 1.6 percent of [MPCP] students have a disability.” This was inaccurate; 1.6 percent of students have requested accommodations for disabilities. Only a fraction of students with disabilities require accommodations.
As University of Arkansas professor Patrick Wolf writes in the journal Education Next, the best estimates show that the percentage of MPCP students who have disabilities is close to the expected figure for their age group. And this is not surprising, because Wisconsin law requires private schools participating in MPCP not only to refrain from discriminating on the basis of disability (or race, color, or national origin), but to “determine which pupils to accept on a random basis.”
DOJ sent the letter anyway, charging that private schools in the program are contractors of the state, and thus must comply with the burdensome certification requirements of the ADA (which, among other things, would require schools to ask applicants whether they have a disability — a practice that is barred under state civil-rights law, specifically to prevent discrimination!). Not only are private schools not contractors in any legal or rational sense, but as Wolf, who conducted a five-year evaluation of the MPCP, sums up: “After 22 years of operation and with 25,000 student participants, approximately 11 percent of whom have disabilities, the state agency that oversees the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has received a grand total of 0 complaints regarding the program’s treatment of students with disabilities. Far less than a mountain, there isn’t even a molehill here.” But details like that never stop Obama’s DOJ.
Then, this September, the DOJ filed suit against the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP). The LSP has provided a lifeline to thousands of low-income, predominantly minority children trapped in underperforming government-assigned schools. But the DOJ tried to use a 38-year-old federal desegregation order to prohibit children in affected schools from participating in the voucher program because of the color of their skin — on the purported grounds that the schools they left would become less integrated.
Unfortunately for DOJ, that turns out not to be true. The department was unable to produce the documents that supposedly showed the program was increasing segregation, and last week, the court announced that the DOJ had dropped its request for an injunction, which would have halted the program. The DOJ attributed its decision to a court’s rejection of a motion by a parents’ group to dismiss the challenge, but this is likely just a face-saving move. Ominously, though, the DOJ is still asking the court to allow for a federal review of the program, which would give the feds 45 days to review any voucher granted before the parents could be informed of their child’s opportunity.
In these places and others, parents and local leadership continue to fight. State politicians in Wisconsin and Louisiana have been strong champions for choice. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker fought hard to expand the Milwaukee program earlier this year, arguing that “every child, regardless of their ZIP code, deserves access to a great education.” As for Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal continues to fight for educational opportunities in what he calls “a moral imperative.”
In October, 30 U.S. senators sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder about the Louisiana lawsuit, stating:
It seems to us that a program that rescues needy children from failing schools, gives families a chance to break the cycle of poverty and violence, and saves taxpayers millions of dollars each year is one that should be lauded by the federal government. Instead, the Justice Department is working to sabotage it.
Educational opportunity is an important stepping stone to economic mobility — a value the administration claims to prize but fails to demonstrate in its opposition to parental choice in education.
— Brittany Corona is a research assistant in domestic-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation and a 2013 Publius Fellow.