Education Week

Obama vs. Education

It was 50 years ago this June that George Wallace, the Democratic governor of Alabama, made his infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door” to prevent two black students from enrolling at an all-white school. His slogan was “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

These many years later, Democrats still are standing in the schoolhouse door to prevent black students from enjoying the educational benefits available to their white peers, this time in Louisiana instead of Alabama. Playing the Wallace role this time is Eric Holder, whose Justice Department is petitioning a U.S. district court to abolish a Louisiana school-choice program that helps students, most of them black, to exit failing government schools.

The Obama administration is a serial offender on this issue, and its cynicism is startling. The Justice Department says that Louisiana’s school-choice program must be constrained because failing to do so would threaten to make the schools less racially integrated than they are today. As noted, the majority of the students who benefit from the program are black, and the great majority of them — 86 percent — are enrolled in schools rated D or F by state education authorities. Which is to say, the DOJ objects to Louisiana’s program precisely on the grounds that if we allow more black children to escape the worst schools, then the worst schools will have fewer black children in them.

It is unclear to us what legitimate end is served by ensuring that the worst schools have a sufficient number of black students; to the contrary, the evidence suggests that black students are tragically well represented in the nation’s worst schools.

But if you believe that this is about desegregation, you could not be more wrong. If President Obama were indeed worried about the continued racial segregation of our schools, he wouldn’t need to look far for a spur to action: The single most segregated school district in the country is not in the South at all but in his adopted hometown of Chicago, followed by other Democrat-dominated cities: Dallas, New York, Philadelphia, Houston, and Los Angeles. Louisiana’s modest program has had barely measurable effects upon the racial composition of its schools — this one seven-tenths of 1 percent less white, that one nine-tenths of 1 percent less black, and so forth.

What we are seeing in Louisiana is a revival of what the Washington Post called the Obama administration’s “petty machinations” against the District of Columbia’s school-choice program. As in Louisiana, the D.C. program primarily benefited black children, the great majority of them poor and trapped in dysfunctional schools. Similarly baseless attacks were made on a school-choice program in Milwaukee. In those cases as now, the real source of opposition is the public-sector unions that bankroll and staff Democratic campaigns — and object strenuously to school-choice programs, which link funding to accountability and give parents the power to make educational choices for their children rather than being mere passive participants.

School choice is Public Enemy No. 1 as far as the National Education Association is concerned. And when it is a choice between the financial interests of the nice white ladies who just happen to be the largest political donors in the country and the educational interests of poor black children in Louisiana, the Obama administration’s loyalties are plain. That the Louisiana intervention gives his administration occasion to stick its thumb in the eye of a popular Republican governor must make the deed even more attractive.

Setting aside the naked political cronyism that is in fact at the heart of this dispute, consider the DOJ’s case on its merits: The government is arguing that the choices of actual black students and their families must be constrained in the service of preserving certain statistical measures of how black certain schools are. Put another way, this case really turns on the question: Are black children human beings?

If they are actual human beings, then it is inhumane to cut them off from much-needed educational opportunities in the service of mere political preferences. The people of Louisiana have decided to make certain kinds of educational assistance available to students in troubled schools; those students and their families have in many cases chosen to avail themselves of those opportunities; and the Department of Justice howls, because assistance rendered to actual black students threatens the hypothetical racial interests of a statistical aggregate. Beyond that, national experience suggests that school-choice programs in general improve racial integration; our schools are segregated because our cities are segregated, and school choice unchains the children from the neighborhood.

There is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, and Governor Wallace eventually renounced segregation. Would that his fellow Democrats should have a similar change of heart and give up their half-century stand in the schoolhouse door.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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