Even as the attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder, commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic “I have a dream speech” in Washington, D.C., his Department of Justice petitioned a federal court to halt the use of Opportunity Scholarships enacted by the Louisiana Legislature on behalf of predominantly minority children.
No, it wasn’t quite George Wallace seeking to block students from entering schoolhouses. Ironically, it was Eric Holder seeking to block the exit of predominantly poor, African American children from chronically failing schools in their search of a quality education.
Holder’s filing is a challenge to the rights of parents whose kids are trapped by automatic school enrollment by ZIP code, regardless of whether that campus is identified as a failing school. The Justice Department is seeking to bar the awarding of these scholarships, also called vouchers, in public school systems that are under federal desegregation orders, unless the vouchers first are approved by a federal judge.
Holder, using dubious data, argues that the exit of black children from failing schools would “impede the desegregation process” in Louisiana. He argues that the scholarship program is a civil-rights violation because schools become “whiter” as minority children flee their failing public school.
Reaction to the Justice Department challenge was fast and furious. Kenneth Campbell, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, acknowledged Louisiana’s racist history, but stated, “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.”
The Louisiana program has been operational for five years and was designed as a voluntary program enabling low-income parents to move their children from low-performing public schools to either higher-performing public schools or to private schools. Last year, some 5,000 children participated; almost 8,000 scholarships were awarded this year. Eighty-six percent of scholarship students who applied were from schools rated as either grade D or F. Ninety-one percent of the children were minority.
Holder’s arguments are an Orwellian reinterpretation of desegregation fights. How does keeping kids trapped in recognized dropout factories advance the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King?
What is the value of an “integrated” school if none of the kids at that school – regardless of skin color – can even read at basic levels of proficiency?
Undoubtedly, the next chapter in civil rights and education law will no longer be dominated by mere demands for integration. Rather, school transformation and parental rights to end school assignment by ZIP code – truly five digits of separation from the American Dream for millions of children across the nation – is being embraced by parents who understand that education is the key to the American Dream. A fundamental rethinking of public education, including discussion of Opportunity Scholarships and vouchers is no longer “off the table” – even among Democrats embracing school reforms.
Sadly, this is not the first time that the Obama administration has moved against vouchers. It also zeroed out funding for the highly successful Washington, D.C., Opportunity Scholarship Program – even as he and the first lady exercised their parental choice to send their daughters to a very prestigious, expensive private school. Most parents in D.C. can’t afford to do that.
After Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana rallied to rebuild its schools. Not only have Pelican State residents rebuilt their schools, they have completely re-imagined education. Today, they are recognized leaders on achieving successful school transformations.
It is shameful that an African American attorney general would attempt to block the exits from failing schools in the name of justice. This is not why Dr. King marched.
Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission.