Feds’ attempt to block vouchers stands civil rights on its head

On Wednesday, Americans marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. That event, largely remembered for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, helped crystallize support for sweeping legal changes that began to stop the longtime, systemic wrongs committed against African-Americans.

By then the civil-rights movement was nearly a decade old, having begun in earnest with the Supreme Court’s 1954 mandate to end racial segregation in schools. Sadly, equality of educational opportunity remains elusive. In far too many cases, geography — not North vs. South, but neighborhood by neighborhood — dictates whether children can get the kind of education that will help them improve their lot in life.

So it is both sad and ironic that, in the name of enforcing desegregation law, the U.S. Department of Justice wants to keep hundreds of non-white children in bad schools, effectively segregated from kids whose families can afford to send them to better schools.

A week ago, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division asked a federal court in Louisiana to order that state to stop issuing vouchers that can be used to pay for private school. It is an action that violates the spirit of school integration and shows exactly how desperate school-choice opponents are — and not just in Louisiana — to protect even the failures of the status quo.

The Louisiana Scholarship Program is a limited voucher program. The only eligible students are those whose families earn less than 2.5 times the federal poverty level (that currently equals $58,875 a year for a family of four) and who attend schools that receive a grade of C, D or F on a state “report card.”

Last year, the state reports, more than 10,000 students applied for a voucher. About half of them eventually accepted one and enrolled in a private school. Nine in 10 recipients were minorities, and more than eight in 10 attended D- or F-grade schools.

In short, this is a program with the intent and the effect of helping disadvantaged children better themselves academically.

But the DOJ — led by the nation’s first black attorney general, who was appointed by our first black president — wants to shut down the scholarship program in school districts that remain under desegregation orders.

The DOJ’s complaint is light on data, a fact its authors acknowledge. It offers but two specific examples of schools where the scholarship program allegedly “impeded the desegregation process.”

One is a C-grade, mostly white school that “lost six black students as a result of the voucher program, thereby increasing the difference between the school’s black student percentage from the [entire] district’s and reinforcing the school’s racial identity as a white school in a predominantly black school district.”

Got that, kids? You can’t take state money to leave that mediocre school if you’re black; its “racial identity” might be reinforced, or something.

The other example was a D-grade, mostly black school with the reverse situation: Five white students left it, “reinforcing the racial identity of the school as a black school.” And it’s true their acceptance of vouchers did cause the school’s black enrollment to grow: by all of two-thirds of 1 percent.

There was a time when a program like Louisiana’s did cause the kind of problem the DOJ now seeks to prevent. Its complaint notes that, between the spring and fall of 1969, the offer of state money for private schools led white enrollment in one Louisiana school district to fall by 68 percent. Somehow, the DOJ deems that analogous to a modern-day change whose effect was less than one-hundredth as large.

I wasn’t alive in 1954, or 1963, or even 1969. By the time I came along, segregation was an item for the history books, which were filled with praise for King and the rest of the movement. And rightly so.

But it is plain to me that we do not boost equality, in any way, by forcing children to stay in bad schools based on the contents of their bank accounts and the color of their skin.

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