National Review Online is attacking the Department of Justice's decision to hold the state of Louisiana accountable for apparently failing to comply with the terms of several longstanding court orders, incorrectly framing these enforcement efforts as an attempt to force minority students to attend failing schools.
This is not the first time that the NRO has advanced these outlandish claims against the DOJ and the Obama administration, but they continue to be dishonest. From a September 24 column on NRO's The Corner:
The Department of Justice's fight against school vouchers for poor children in Louisiana has not been popular, and the Obama administration knows it. So last night, in a particularly cynical move, the DOJ filed an additional motion, amending its suit in phrasing but not spirit.
This political maneuvering threatens the future of thousands of minority children who may soon be banished to failing schools.
The DOJ is making two main demands: First, it wants information about how the voucher program would affect the racial composition of public schools; and second, it wants parents to get pre-clearance from federal courts before they're allowed to transfer their own children to a school of their choice.
And if the DOJ succeeds, that would have repercussions not only within Louisiana, which has emerged as a national school-choice leader, but also across the United States; education reformers would have to assess how offering academic options to parents and their children might affect "desegregation."
The DOJ filed its suit because Louisiana is under numerous federal court orders that require the state to assess the impact of new educational policies on decades-long efforts to desegregate Louisiana public schools, not because it believes, as NRO puts it, "Minority kids mustn't leave for better schools." Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal ignored this legal obligation and went ahead with a voucher program before providing any information to the court regarding its effects, even after the DOJ warned the voucher program appeared to have "impeded the desegregation process."
As the DOJ points out in the amended petition referenced by NRO, contrary to right-wing claims, its aim was never to shut down Louisiana's voucher program. Rather, the DOJ is ensuring the state's compliance with existing court orders by reviewing relevant data:
As this Court has noted, the United States is neither opposing the Defendant State of Louisiana's ... school voucher program nor seeking to take vouchers away from any students who have received them. Rather, the United States is simply seeking this Court's assistance in ensuring that the information Louisiana collects in connection with its school voucher program is provided to the United States in a timely fashion and that Louisiana implements its program in full compliance with federal law, including the desegregation order in this case.
Nowhere in the DOJ's original or amended complaint does it suggest that individual parents will be required "to get pre-clearance from the federal courts" before participating in a voucher program.
The pre-clearance requirement is imposed on the state, not on parents. This is clear from the DOJ's court documents, which ask the court to prevent Louisiana "from issuing any future voucher awards to these students unless and until it obtains authorization from the federal court overseeing the applicable desegregation case."
Moreover, the idea that the DOJ's lawsuit to bring Louisiana into compliance will somehow "have repercussions...across the United States" is exaggerated. Only those school districts that are currently subject to federal oversight, including 34 school districts in Louisiana, are required to assess how new programs might impact desegregation efforts. Because of Louisiana's history of state-mandated segregation, the DOJ's suit seeks only to ensure that this specific voucher program does not violate the applicable court orders.
In a letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner on September 24, the DOJ explained further:
To be clear, we are neither opposing Louisiana's school voucher program nor seeking to revoke vouchers from any students. When properly run, state and local voucher programs need not conflict with legal requirements to desegregate schools.
We share your interest in ensuring that low-income and minority children in Louisiana have equal access to educational opportunities. ... [Y]ou should be aware that it is not clear that all of the new schools for which children are receiving vouchers in Louisiana provide opportunities that are better than or even equal to those in their old schools.
The [DOJ] has worked for decades, in Louisiana and across the country, to ensure that every student is able to enjoy the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Indeed, the [DOJ] has worked to ensure that Louisiana students can participate in all school activities free from racial discrimination or segregation, and to make sure that no Louisiana student, based on his or her race, is left in failing schools with crumbling walls, faulty toilets, and inadequate opportunities to learn.
Jindal, who called the DOJ's amended complaint a "PR stunt," ultimately agreed to hand over some of the information, but only after again accusing the DOJ of bringing the suit as a political favor to teachers unions. The NRO seems to be following his lead.
Photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore