- - Wednesday, September 11, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s Justice Department is stuck in the past. And now that predilection is threatening to keep thousands of disadvantaged children in Louisiana from the decent education they so desperately want and need.

What makes the Justice Department’s obsession with “sins of the past” doubly wrong-headed is that it repeats an error recently corrected by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the last term, the court rejected the department’s argument in the Shelby County v. Holder and struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. The court explained that its decision was based on the fact that the coverage formula used to justify actions taken under Section 4 was “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”

But the Department of Justice, it seems, didn’t get the memo, because, once again, they are using 40-year-old facts to stifle promising policy initiatives. This time DOJ is mistakenly relying on desegregation orders issued in the 1970s to roll back a popular school voucher option in Louisiana. Ironically, the primary beneficiaries of this program are the state’s low-income and minority students — the very students the “old-school” desegregation orders were meant to help.

On Aug. 22, DOJ filed a motion in federal court in Louisiana to block the state “from awarding any school vouchers to students attending school in districts operating under federal desegregation orders.” The case the DOJ is relying upon in its filing was opened nearly four decades ago. Certainly, segregated schools were a shameful part of the state’s history, but the key word here is “history.” The program the DOJ means to stop has nothing to do with the sordid past and everything to do with the future. It is designed to help students of all races access education options that meet their learning needs.

Unfortunately, the DOJ appears to be more interested in quashing school-choice programs that teachers unions don’t like than in protecting children’s ability to get a decent education.

The Louisiana Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program was established in 2008. Just last year, Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, signed into law his statewide expansion of the program. Under the new law, vouchers are available to any Louisiana student from a low-income family (below 250 percent of the federal poverty line) who would otherwise be assigned to a failing school — i.e., a school graded C, D or F. according to the state’s accountability system. The average voucher is worth approximately $5,300, and parents can use that money to place their children in qualifying, high-performing schools, either public or private.

To date, most of the students benefiting from this program have been minority students. And Virginia Walden Ford, one of the earliest students to break the barrier of segregated schools in the South, finds it particularly paradoxical that the Justice Department — charged with enforcing equal rights — would oppose an education option that is helping minority students achieve and succeed.

“School choice is the civil rights battle of the 21st century,” Ms. Ford says. One of the “second wave” of students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1966, she explains: “We didn’t fight to get into buildings. We fought to get a quality education. The idea that some people would force kids to stay in failing public schools makes no sense.”

About 8,000 students currently use the Louisiana scholarships — their ticket out of schools that have failed them and their communities. But rather than take a sober look at minority educational opportunity and achievement, the Justice Department has chosen to seize on decades-old desegregation orders to stop students and their parents from choosing schools that offer them a chance to get a real education.

It’s no secret that this administration doesn’t like school choice. Every year it tries to zero-out funding for the highly successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and recently has begun making life difficult for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. But sacrificing student opportunity and achievement flies in the face of the whole point of school desegregation in the first place.

Andrew Kloster is a legal fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies. Lindsey M. Burke is Heritage’s Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy.