In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “If there was any argument for vouchers, it was, ‘Alright, let’s see if this experiment works.’” If it did, candidate Obama promised, “I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn.”
Obama held out the promise of a post-racial, post-partisan presidency. He would not reflexively dismiss vouchers or play interest-group politics.
Five years on, things have changed. Last month, Obama’s Department of Justice filed suit to halt the Louisiana Scholarship Program. The LSP is a $40 million–a–year program that provides vouchers to low-income students so that they can attend private schools.
The DOJ alleges that the voucher program fails to conform to federal school-desegregation plans. The DOJ suit points to the Celilia Primary School, which lost six black students, thereby “reinforcing the school’s racial identity as a white school in a predominantly black school district.”
If that seems a thin reed on which to hang a federal civil-rights claim, it should. As Brookings Institution scholar Russ Whitehurst has noted, given that the black population at Celilia averages 273 and fluctuates from year to year, this “does not approach a statistically significant difference in black enrollment from one year to the next.”
The DOJ did not even allege that the program would be bad for the students who used vouchers, those who did not, or, really, anyone. The DOJ just argued that this statistically insignificant shift would impact the racial identity of the school — and that this would be, ipso facto, bad.
The suit was filed the same week that Attorney General Eric Holder honored the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, even as his Justice Department made clear that it would judge state school-choice programs not by their character but by their marginal impact according to federal spreadsheets.
Now, it turns out that those spreadsheets were wrong. A new study in the journal Education Next suggests that the DOJ bean counters can’t even count their beans correctly.
Using Louisiana’s student-level database and U.S. census data, University of Arkansas researchers Anna Egalite and Jonathan Mills examined the voucher program’s impact on integration during the 2012–13 school year. Egalite and Mills report that, in the 34 districts under federal desegregation orders (including the 24 districts named in the lawsuit), 74 percent of students using LSP vouchers actually improved integration by leaving — and 56 percent of voucher students improved integration in the private schools they entered.
As the researchers explain, “Transfers made possible by the school-choice program overwhelmingly improve integration.” Further, they observe, “For African American students, who constitute the majority of voucher recipients, approximately 90 percent of LSP transfers improve integration for sending schools.”
There are three takeaways here. The first is just how laughable the DOJ brief really was. The department’s civil-rights lawyers cherry-picked examples while ignoring the comprehensive data that was available on the program’s 5,000 participants.
Second, there are two kinds of programs that can affect segregation. One kind involves government coercion — e.g., the forced busing of students. Such programs are involuntary and thus inevitably restrict freedom, create winners and losers, and stir up ill feelings. But the other kind involves allowing families to make their own choices, and this can reduce segregation, too. We can have good, smart debates over the limits of such measures, but it seems clear we should embrace them whenever possible. What’s astonishing is to see the federal government working so hard to stop a program that promotes voluntary desegregation.
Third, President Obama likes to present himself as the measured, data-driven adult in the room. But here his administration has launched a crusade to keep low-income families from a program that allows them to attend private schools — on the basis of a poor analysis of the program’s effect on segregation, and despite the finding of the federally mandated study of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program that students receiving vouchers benefited from their involvement in the program.
It’s a sad irony that the administration of a president heralded as a school reformer, one who has pledged to respect the data and not to “stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn,” has launched a crusade to trap African-American students in schools they are trying to escape.
When they get back to work, the DOJ’s civil-rights attorneys would be well-advised to take another look at their numbers, apologize to Louisiana, and close the books on this misbegotten case.
— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies, and Max Eden is a research assistant, at the American Enterprise Institute.