The old segregationist Louisiana legislator William M. Rainach would be mystified, but impressed. Back in his day, the 1950s, locking black youngsters into inferior schools was a simple matter of racial prejudice. He’d surely marvel that six decades later, the nation’s first African-American attorney general had found a way to do it in the name of desegregation.
Eric Holder is nothing if not creative. His Justice Department is asking a federal court to block a portion of a Louisiana voucher program that gives poor children a way out of failing public schools. Ninety percent of the students who use this educational lifeline are black. But Holder’s department acts as if vouchers are tantamount to Willie Rainach reaching back from the grave.
The Justice Department petition harks back to a 40-year-old desegregation case involving state-aided white flight to private schools. That case led to a court order forbidding Louisiana from providing assistance to private schools, meant to frustrate desegregation. The document’s description of the noxiousness of past practices is quite compelling, but for the fact that it is not 1975 anymore.
Louisiana has an Indian-American governor, Bobby Jindal, who manifestly cares about the quality of education for everyone — a sentiment that the racial obsessives at Justice evidently can’t understand.
The voucher program is available to youngsters from families below 250 percent of the poverty line and enrolled in schools receiving a C, D or F grade from the state. In Louisiana a school gets an F if fewer than half of its students are graduating or learning at grade level. The program is popular and growing, with about 8,000 students participating as of this fall, and has shown early results in improved test scores.
None of that is relevant to the Justice Department, which seeks to block the vouchers unless they are subject to juridical pre-approval in districts under the old court order. It claims that affected schools “achieved or were close to achieving the desired degree of student racial diversity, and the loss of students through the voucher program reversed much of the progress made toward desegregation.” It alleges “irreparable injury.” “Much” of the progress? “Irreparable” harm?
The petition cites two specific instances to support these dire warnings. It describes how five white students left Independence Elementary School, north of New Orleans, thus “reinforcing the racial identity of the school as a black school.” Education expert Jay Greene crunched the numbers and figured that — all thing being equal — the loss of these white students you can count on one hand would shift the school from 29.6 percent white to 28.9 percent white, for a total of 0.7 percent less whiteness.
On the other hand, Cecilia Primary School lost six black students, thus “reinforcing the school’s racial identity as a white school in a predominantly black school district.” According to Greene, that would change the racial composition of the school from 30.1 percent black to 29.2 percent black, a stunning 0.9 percent drop in African-American enrollment.
A few questions suggest themselves, such as: Who thinks this way, about schools, about life, about anything? And: Does Eric Holder have nothing better to do? Gov. Jindal wrote an op-ed the other day arguing that race is the most soulless way to think about people. Holder should be forced to commit it to memory.
Even on his own bean-counting terms, Holder is wrong. A review of the research literature by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice notes that almost every empirical study finds “that school choice moves students from more segregated schools into less segregated schools.” Since the advent of a voucher program in Milwaukee, the city’s private schools are only 35 percent white, whereas they used to be 75 percent white.
At the end of the day, the federal enmity to school choice is driven less by racial justice than by the teachers unions, whose answer to poor kids stuck in rotten public schools is always simple and direct: “Stay.”
Syndicated columnist Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.