Commentary Magazine


The Case Against Louisiana’s School Choice Program Crumbles

The school choice movement’s prospects can sometimes be measured by the quality of the arguments deployed against them. Egged on by organized labor, big-government Democrats have shunted aside their supposed concern for basic fairness in the service of preserving a flailing government education monopoly. Sometimes, the government couches its case against poor students in terms of “saving” public schools or reinforcing the separation of church and state.

But sometimes, the government is simply out of ammo and engages in the intellectual and legal equivalent of throwing a shoe. That’s what the Obama administration did when it dispatched Eric Holder’s Justice Department to make a sensationally offensive and clownishly ill-reasoned case against the Louisiana school choice program. It was desperation, pure and simple. And it should have been a humbling moment for the administration, a good time for the government to look itself in the mirror and wonder what it has become.

I wrote about this case back in August. Briefly, Louisiana put into place a program to give private-school vouchers to low-income students in failing public schools. Deprived of any meritorious argument against it, the Justice Department petitioned a district court to enjoin the state from offering scholarships to students from schools that are still under federal desegregation orders. The Holder Justice Department’s logic, such as it is, portrayed the voucher program as disrupting the racial balance of the schools by pulling minority students out of majority-white schools.

As I wrote, this was a terrible and shameful argument. But thanks to two new studies, we also know that it is demonstrably false, and the government should drop its case against Louisiana’s minority students immediately:

The first study conducted out of the University of Arkansas found that these transfers overwhelmingly improved integration in the public schools that students leave as well as the private schools that participating students attend.

Of the 5,000 students who used LSP vouchers in the 2012-13 school year, all were from families with incomes less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line, and about 90 percent were black.

Specifically, the Arkansas study found, just 17 percent of LSP schools are racially homogenous, compared to over one-third of public schools that previously enrolled these students. In 83 percent of cases, an overwhelming majority, LSP transfers had a positive impact on the racial integration of the student’s original public school.

“Based on this evidence, we conclude that the LSP is unlikely to have harmed desegregation efforts in Louisiana,” the authors write. “To the contrary, the statewide school voucher program appears to have brought greater integration to Louisiana’s public schools.”

These findings were validated by a separate study by Christine Rossell of Boston University who was retained to analyze data for the DOJ case. Rossell concludes, “The 2012-13 Louisiana scholarship program to date has no negative effect on school desegregation in the 34 school districts under a desegregation court order.”

This should be the end of what was truly an act of desperation from a government agency convinced its will could not be disobeyed. And at the heart of this was a distorted view of desegregation and its purposes. Most of the students benefiting from this program are black. Holder’s DOJ argued that this means that a disproportionate number of black students are being given the opportunity to flee failing schools for better ones, leaving fewer black students behind.

To Holder’s DOJ, the “racial balance” of failing government schools is more important than actually improving life for racial minorities, which is what Bobby Jindal and the state’s leaders were trying to do. But now we know that the “racial balance” argument is a fallacy anyway. The school choice program improves both racial balance in schools and the educational freedom of the state’s minority students.

The government’s argument for suppressing minorities’ educational opportunities has completely dissolved. They should drop this case, accept the principle of equal educational opportunity for minorities, and get out of the way.