“These are real kids and real families, and this is about the future of these kids,” Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) president Kenneth Campbell told CNSNews Wednesday.
“Fifty years ago, we worked to solve a problem that desperately needed to be solved and the federal government played an important role,” Campbell said on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic March on Washington. “But in 2013, we need a different strategy and different tactics to ensure that all kids get a quality education.
“I don’t believe we should be saying that you have to stay in these failing schools because it will mess up desegregation efforts,” he continued. “School quality is much more important at this point in time.”
In a motion filed August 23, DOJ asked a federal court in Louisiana to “permanently enjoin” the state from expanding the voucher program statewide. “As of the date of this filing, the State has awarded vouchers for the 2013-2014 school year to students in at least 22 districts operating under federal desegregation orders, many of which may impede the desegregation process in those districts,” the lawsuit said. (See Brumfield v Dodd - LA.pdf)
DOJ objects to giving vouchers to minority students attending predominantly white public schools because their departure leaves the schools less racially diverse.
“In several districts operating under desegregation orders, the State’s issuance of vouchers increased the racial identifiability of schools because the voucher recipients were in the racial minority at the public school they attended,” according to the lawsuit.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has championed his state's voucher program, called DOJ’s action “shameful,” adding that the Justice Department, “using the same rules that were there to prevent discrimination against minority children, is going after some of these parents and some of these kids and saying, ‘We don’t know that we want to allow you to make this choice.’”
Campbell agreed that the DOJ is on the wrong track when it comes to attacking schools vouchers.
“We are fully aware of Louisiana’s ugly and racist history of working to both undermine and circumvent early desegregation efforts. There is no question that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the state routinely found ways to help ensure that white children would not have to attend racially integrated schools -- including funneling public funds to new, all-white private schools,” Campbell, a founding board member of the D.C.-based group, said in a statement. (See BAEO statement.pdf)
“These acts and many like them were both shameful and appalling and set the stage for important interventions by the United States Government. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to equate the current scholarship program that provides the only avenue for low-income children to escape failing schools to past efforts that supported and encouraged ‘white flight’ 40 years ago.”
“In an ideal world, we could have a system of education that offers both high-quality and racial and economic diversity. However, the reality is that in Louisiana and throughout America, far too many children are forced into failing schools that give them virtually no chance of receiving the type of education they need to allow them to achieve success as adults,” Campbell said.
Launched in New Orleans in 2008 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, The Louisiana Scholarship Program currently has about 8,000 students, 91 percent of whom are members of minority groups, according to the Louisiana Department of Education (DOE). Students use the vouchers to help pay tuition at 117 private and parochial schools that participate in the program.
“To be eligible for a scholarship, students must have a family income of less than 250% of the federal poverty line and must be entering kindergarten or must already be enrolled in a low-performing school with a C, D, or F grade,” according to the DOE, which reported that 86 percent of Louisiana voucher recipients were enrolled in D- or F-rated public schools last year.
The voucher program came under fire in May when standardized test scores remained flat while scores for public schools increased one percent, prompting Education Superintendent John White to remove seven private schools in New Orleans from the program.
Campbell says minority parents are very happy with the vouchers.
“Louisiana’s voucher system is relatively new and we don’t have a ton of longitudinal data, but all the early signs are positive,” Campbell told CNSNews. “Some voucher schools got off on the wrong foot, and I applaud the state superintendent for swiftly acting and not allowing them to add more children. They’re still figuring out accountability, but parental satisfaction is through the roof – it’s incredibly high.”
Jeanne Allen, founder and president of The Center for Education Reform, said in a statement condemning DOJ's action: “The fact that Attorney General Eric Holder chose to file this motion on a day of festivities commemorating the March on Washington can only demonstrate one of two things.
"It either shows that he has a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of vouchers in creating education opportunities for children, or that he has a corrosive cynicism about the power of educational choice to improve educational performance and to meet parent demands for better outcomes.”