Last week, the U.S. Justice Department filed suit against the state of Louisiana over its education scholarship program, claiming that as much “impeded the desegregation process” in Louisiana public schools under federal orders to desegregate. From the New Orleans Times-Picayune:
Thirty-four school systems could be affected, including those of Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. John the Baptist and St. Tammany parishes. Under the lawsuit, the state would be barred from assigning students in those systems to private schools unless a federal judge agreed to it. A court hearing is tentatively set for Sept. 19.
These are treacherous waters. Mandatory racial segregation, especially within our education system, was a shameful practice and represents a dark period in our country’s proud history. Parents of all races and classes should have the right to send their child to any school they want. That’s what desegregation in our education system should ultimately be about. Unfortunately, this lawsuit, even though its heart (for lack of better phrasing) may be in the right place, seems to run counter to the notion of freedom of choice in in our school systems:
The Justice Department's primary argument is that letting students leave for vouchered private schools can disrupt the racial balance in public school systems that desegregation orders are meant to protect. Those orders almost always set rules for student transfers with the school system.
The danger here lies in putting an ideal vision of the public school system over the good of students themselves. That is the potential harm in this lawsuit, regardless of one’s opinion on education scholarships or what the federal government’s role in education should be. Is limiting the freedom of parents and students to attend a school that best suits their needs going to enhance equality, or quality for that matter, in our education system?
A final note: this lawsuit also demonstrates one of the drawbacks of statewide education scholarship programs, which is to say legal vulnerability. Over the last few years, several of the country’s larger choice programs—Indiana’s, New Hampshire’s, and Louisiana even before the federal suit—have faced litigation, though more commonly from within their own state rather than from the DOJ. Indiana successfully defended their program. New Hampshire and Louisiana have thus far been less successful in doing so. States considering the implementation of such programs in the future (hopefully including Texas) should be very careful when designing such a program to reduce the risk of legal challenge. The opponents of school choice are numerous and motivated, a fact that education reformers should always keep in mind.