DOJ vs. Louisiana School Choice: A Cynical Maneuver

by Jillian Kay Melchior

The Department of Justice’s fight against school vouchers for poor children in Louisiana has not been popular, and the Obama administration knows it. So last night, in a particularly cynical move, the DOJ filed an additional motion, amending its suit in phrasing but not spirit.

This political maneuvering threatens the future of thousands of minority children who may soon be banished to failing schools.

A bit of background: Last year, Louisiana passed bipartisan legislation establishing a voucher program for children whose families fell below 250 percent of the poverty line, and who would otherwise be trapped in failing schools. Already, around 8,000 Louisiana children have taken advantage of this opportunity, switching to better private schools.

Though about 90 percent of these voucher recipients are black, the Department of Justice has bizarrely decided to fight this program on racial grounds: Minority kids mustn’t leave for better schools, the DOJ is essentially arguing, because then the bad schools would be less diverse. In a further demonstration of bad taste, the DOJ filed this lawsuit on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The DOJ is making two main demands: First, it wants information about how the voucher program would affect the racial composition of public schools; and second, it wants parents to get pre-clearance from federal courts before they’re allowed to transfer their own children to a school of their choice.

And if the DOJ succeeds, that would have repercussions not only within Louisiana, which has emerged as a national school-choice leader, but also across the United States; education reformers would have to assess how offering academic options to parents and their children might affect “desegregation.”

House Republicans, suspecting the DOJ’s suit had more to do with Obama administration politics than with protecting the best interests of vulnerable minority children, wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, demanding an explanation for how this lawsuit helps children “access better educational opportunities.” “We strongly urge you to consider the effects of this poorly conceived motion on the very children you profess to be protecting,” they wrote.

On Tuesday, the DOJ filed an amendment to the case, an effort to get in front of the criticism.

The real objection to the DOJ’s original suit is that parents would essentially have to take on the federal government before they could remove their children from a school certain to fail them. These parents would have to hire a lawyer, work their way through a lengthy and arduous legal process, and make the case that their child’s transfer didn’t interfere with abstract notions of what diversity should look like. But many of the children stuck in Louisiana’s failing schools belong to impoverished, single-parent households, making this legal hurdle even more unsurpassable.

In its new motion, the DOJ ignores this, instead focusing on the data about racial composition of public schools. The department acknowledges that Louisiana has agreed to submit that information, claiming that satisfies it. But, of course, the DOJ stands by its vastly more controversial demand: That federal courts, not parents, should decide where children attend school.

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has seen through this latest legal ploy, which he called “nothing more than a P.R. stunt.” In a news release today, the governor explained what’s really going on:

While attempting to rebrand its legal challenge as merely an attempt to seek information about implementation of the scholarship program, the administration’s real motive still stands – forcing parents to go to federal court to seek approval for where they want to send their children to school.

The Obama Administration’s letter is disingenuous. …

The federal government is attempting to retreat in name only, but is not backing off its attack on Louisiana parents. The Obama Administration is doubling down on its belief that bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. know better than Louisiana parents.

The only real retreat is to drop the lawsuit entirely and move on from this backwards lawsuit that is trying to deny equal opportunity for Louisiana children.

The DOJ deserves to be called out for this gauche political maneuver. In its effort to rebrand its suit, the Obama administration is simply seeking the tactful means to accomplish an identical end.

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