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Parental school choice spurs surprising reactions from advocates of the poor

by John Kirtley
August 26, 2013

As a white person from Iowa, I am always hesitant to write about the racial aspects of ed reform and parental school choice. I feel it is always better to have others with more credibility speak of it. But this weekend I saw two things that compelled me to write.

On Saturday, I read that the U.S. Justice Department is suing the state of Louisiana to block vouchers for students in public school districts that are under old federal desegregation orders. The statewide voucher program, officially called the Louisiana Scholarship Program, lets low-income students in public schools graded C, D or F attend private schools at taxpayer expense. This year, 22 of the 34 school systems under desegregation orders are sending some students to private schools on vouchers.

The Justice Department’s primary argument is that letting students leave for private schools can disrupt the racial balance in public school systems that desegregation orders are meant to protect. Sounds like a good idea, right?

But here’s the thing: according to the Louisiana Department of Education, 86 percent of the children on the program are black. Only 9 percent are white.

If roughly 90 percent of the kids on the program are black, I don’t really understand how them moving to private schools that would better serve them would worsen segregation in the public schools. Are they leaving schools that are mostly white? If so, should they be forced to stay there even though they aren’t being well served? How would you explain that to their parents?

On the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s great speech, a black attorney general working for a black president filed a lawsuit to halt a program that is helping low-income black families in Louisiana choose a better school for their children. This law was not just backed by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, but was sponsored and supported by numerous black Democratic legislators. Half of the Senate Democratic caucus and a quarter of the House Democratic caucus in the Louisiana legislature backed the initial expansion of the program from its New Orleans origins.

I am especially mystified because the Obama administration has stood up to the teachers’ union on many occasions, especially in its strong support for charter schools. The only other time I have seen the administration do the wrong thing was in a situation sadly similar. It has more than once tried to eliminate the funding for the Washington D.C. voucher program. This program has had documented success, with a graduation rate of over 90 percent. More than 85 percent of the students on the program are black (and another 13 percent are Hispanic). Why would the president want to kill a program that helps poor children attend a school with his own children?

The president has been justly commended by the ed reform community for the many things he has done right in our cause. My hope is that my allies in ed reform and choice will also point out when he does something wrong.

The second thing that made me pause was when I checked the newspapers in Alabama, where there has been much controversy over a parental choice law that was recently passed by the state legislature (with only Republicans in favor). The law contains a tax credit scholarship program very similar to Florida’s, under which companies get a tax credit for donating to non-profits – which in turn give scholarships to low-income families to pay for private school tuition.

Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit to stop to program. The rationale: Because the law cannot immediately help every poor child, it should not be allowed to operate at all. The Alabama Media Group, which operates the state’s three largest daily newspapers, published a column by SPLC president J. Richard Cohan that argued “while some students will be able to transfer, many will remain trapped in failing schools.”

To its credit, the Media Group offered space for a dissenting viewpoint. That column was submitted by Rev. H. K. Matthews, an icon of the Florida civil rights movement who now leads a church in Alabama. Rev. Matthews wrote: “They say if you can’t help all low-income kids at once, you shouldn’t help any. It’s a good thing we didn’t take that attitude towards civil rights – change didn’t happen overnight; we made progress one lunch counter at a time.”

So in this case you have an organization that, according to its website, is “seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society” – and it wishes to stop a program that is helping the poorest families of Alabama find better schools for their children. Opposing its view is a man who nearly a half-century ago marched across the Selma bridge with Dr. King, and who was jailed 35 times in the cause of civil rights.

It will be fascinating to see how the issue of parental empowerment continues to motivate parties who are dedicated to social justice.