President Obama was in New Orleans over the weekend, talking about strengthening the economy. But his administration has mounted an effort to halt Louisiana’s revolutionary school reform — which in turn could undermine one of the state’s most promising economic prospects.
Last year, Louisiana’s legislature established a voucher program for impoverished children who would otherwise be consigned to failing schools. The legislation, which received bipartisan support, is part of a broader school-reform effort that has swept the state since Hurricane Katrina. The results are promising: Last spring, Louisiana’s graduation rate reached an all-time high, with 72.3 percent of students graduating from high school on time — up from 64.8 percent in 2005.
About 85 percent of students using Louisiana’s vouchers are black, and their educational successes will translate into economic gains. People who graduate from high school earn more annually, find themselves unemployed less, and avoid prison more frequently. In Louisiana, where 45 percent of blacks remain in poverty, giving children access to better schools could strengthen the state economy as a whole.
Nevertheless, the Department of Justice has mounted a legal effort to essentially halt Louisiana’s school-voucher program—on the dubious grounds that if poor black children leave terrible schools for better ones, those failing schools become less diverse.
The DOJ’s logic is faulty, but so are its facts, according to a new study filed with the court last week. Louisiana’s voucher program “to date has had no negative effect on school desegregation in the 34 school districts under a desegregation court order,” wrote Christine Rossell, a Boston University professor with 40 years’ experience working on the issue of segregation in schools. Furthermore, she concluded that in some of the school districts, racial integration actually improved as a result of the voucher program.
Governor Bobby Jindal has decried the DOJ suit, and earlier this fall, he invited the president and the attorney general to visit with families utilizing the voucher program.
“I believe if you and the Attorney General are able to hear firsthand from parents about the experiences their children are having in the program, then you will reconsider the suit,” Jindal wrote in a letter to the president. “I think it is only right that you and Attorney General Holder join me and come visit a scholarship school in Louisiana to look into the faces of the parents and kids and try to explain to them why you want to force them back into failing schools.”
But President Obama ignored the invitation. During the trip, “Governor Jindal asked the President to stop the Department of Justice from pursuing the lawsuit,” says his communications director, Kyle Plotkin. “Time will tell.” But so far, the DOJ shows no inclination to withdraw its misguided crusade against vouchers.
While he neglected to address education reform, President Obama made a speech on the economy. “Let’s give everybody a chance to get ahead, not just a few at the top, but everybody,” the president said. “If we do that, if we help our businesses grow, our communities thrive and our children reach a little higher, then the economy is going to grow faster. We’ll rebuild our middle class — stronger.”
In that context, it’s especially frustrating that the Obama administration is trying to limit those opportunities for poor minority children in Louisiana. Without the chance to escape failing schools, odds are good that their middle-class aspirations will forever remain out of reach. And that will be a personal tragedy, but also a social and economic one.