DOJ lawsuit against students’ interests

Education reform has taken the country by storm, sometimes to the chagrin of the old entrenched educational establishment. Louisiana has been ground zero for the education reform movement. After Hurricane Katrina, millions of dollars in private funding plus numerous human resources descended on the city to rebuild. Now, an astonishing 90 percent of New Orleans’ public school students are enrolled in charter schools. Demographic changes after Hurricane Katrina increased the percentage of low-income students enrolled in the city’s public schools. Despite this shift, test scores have increased.

A key feature in Louisiana’s education reform has been granting vouchers for low-income students that would attend failing public schools to attend private institutions. According to the Wall Street Journal, the program “provides tuition vouchers to children from families with incomes below 250 percent of the poverty line whose children otherwise would attend public schools that the state has graded C, D or F.” Due to their parents’ income level, these students would be forced to attend faltering public schools with no way out if not for the voucher program.

As usual, the use of vouchers has upset the educational establishment, and, in turn, the administration in Washington. In August, the Department of Justice filed a case against Louisiana over the state’s voucher program, claiming that “the first year of private school vouchers ‘impeded the desegregation process,’” according to The Times-Picayune newspaper. Vouchers for next year would be blocked in districts still under the federal government’s desegregation orders from fifty years ago.

The suit has generated uproar from Louisiana’s Governor, Republican Bobby Jindal, numerous elected officials at the state level (the vote for funding the vouchers was nearly unanimous in the Louisiana legislature), national leaders, and national organizations including the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

This opposition starts from the premise that President Obama’s administration is doing everything possible to destroy voucher programs to satisfy teachers’ unions, a major force in Obama’s campaigns. I would argue they are right, as demonstrated by the administrative attempt to defund the voucher program in Washington, DC. But, I think this lawsuit gets to a larger problem of the federal government meddling in local issues for nobody’s benefit. Still unclosed desegregation orders have good intentions, but end up failing to help the very individuals that the laws were intended to protect.

The Justice Department’s suit uses percentages of white and black students in schools in areas still facing desegregation orders to argue that the voucher program uses state funding to thwart the federal government’s desegregation efforts. On closer examination, this argument is a sham. Two cases in the suit are particularly ludicrous. In one instance, six African American students leaving a school through the voucher program decreased the percentage of black students in the school from 30.1 percent to 29.2 percent. In another case, five white students leaving a failing school decreased the percentage of white students in the school from 29.6 percent to 28.9 percent, violating desegregation orders.

Metrics like these are commonly used to determine the impact of certain public policies, and I am not advocating jettisoning the use of all metrics. However, we need to recognize the limitations of applying metrics from the national level down to local communities that change year to year.

Using small, single-year variations in the racial makeup of schools to justify federal intervention to block Louisiana’s voucher program suggests significant government overreach that has nothing to do with getting students access to better education. If the government intervened on grounds that the students were getting a worse education elsewhere so that minor breaks in the desegregation orders were not justifiable, then the suit would have more legitimacy. Instead, slight statistical variations are being used by the government to fabricate a federal suit.

At Swarthmore, we are undergoing a plethora of policy changes that are more about protecting the school from legal suits than about protecting students. This is an inevitable consequence once bureaucracies are accused of mishandling legal issues.

I sympathize with those students trying to make Swarthmore a better place for all students, but I also worry that, like has happened with the federal government’s suit over Louisiana’s voucher program, the most well-intentioned changes may end up harming the same students the changes are meant to help.