Tue September 10, 2013
School Desegregation Motivates DOJ's Complaint Over Vouchers
The Justice Department is worried that Louisiana's private school voucher program may be undermining efforts to overcome the historic segregation of public schools, and last month asked a federal court to stop the state from awarding any more vouchers until it's shown the program isn't undoing progress.
Read the Department of Justice complaint here.
JEFFRIES: There are roughly 200 active school desegregation orders in place around the country, dating back to the Civil Rights era.
Samuel Bagenstos is a law professor at the University of Michigan who worked in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under the Obama Administration. He says the orders are a centerpiece of civil rights enforcement in the U.S. today.
Thirty-four Louisiana school districts are affected by desegregation orders stemming from the Brumfield v. Dodd case the federal government brought against the state superintendent of education in 1971.
BAGENSTOS: Actually, the reason why the state is a defendant in this case is because in the early 1970s the state of Louisiana was using payment for private schools as a way of circumventing school desegregation.
JEFFRIES: The Justice Department is worried that Louisiana's private school voucher program may now be undermining efforts to overcome the historic segregation of public schools, and last month asked a federal court to stop the state from awarding any more vouchers until it's shown the program isn't undoing progress.
Gov. Bobby Jindal has repeatedly criticized the move, accusing the Obama Administration of targeting the voucher program only to pander to the teachers unions who have opposed it.
I spoke with Professor Bagenstos to get a better understanding of what’s going on...
JEFFRIES: The Justice Department, federal officials, after looking at enrollment data from the voucher program for the 2012-2013 school year, they concluded that vouchers may have made segregation worse in 34 schools in 13 districts, and so that's why they filed this complaint.
But the numbers that they're talking about are really small.
You have one school, for example, Independence Elementary School in Tangipahoa that lost a total of five white students last year to predominantly white private schools through the voucher program. What if it had just been one student or two? Would that have raised the red flag? Is there a threshold that the Justice Department is concerned about?
BAGENSTOS: Well, I think there are a couple of concerns here. One is, there are, according to the Justice Deptartment's filings, about 1,200 students across the state that aren't really accounted for in the data the state has provided -- we don't know whether those have come from districts that are under desegregation orders -- so the numbers could be bigger than you're suggesting.
But, the second major concern is, under the terms of these desegregation orders that have been part of court orders for a long time, when the state or the school districts involved are making changes in student assignment that might undermine the desegregation orders, they have to go before the court, and that's a step that the state didn't take here.
JEFFRIES: The Justice Department's complaint now has become Gov. Jindal's new rallying cry.
This is Gov. Jindal speaking at an event sponsored by Americans for Prosperity in Orlando, Fl…
JINDAL: 100 percent of these kids are from low-income families. 100 percent of these kids were going to C, D, and F graded schools. ... And what's so atrocious is that Eric Holder, the Obama Administration Department of Justice, is using using the same rules intended to protect low-income children ... to force these kids to go back to failing schools.
JEFFRIES: Does the governor have a point?
BAGENSTOS: I don't really think so.
It seems a little bit disingenuous to say that these are kids who are necessarily going to better schools. They may be in very bad situations now, but they're going to schools that can't be pulled from the program for quality reasons f or three years. So it's basically an experiment. But I think that's all to some extent a tangent here.
I mean, the basic question that the Justice Department is asking is not, should you have a voucher program or not. Instead, they're asking the question is the voucher program being used that exacerbates the problem or race segregation and racial identifiability of schools.
JEFFRIES: It sounds like what you're saying is, if the voucher program is not exacerbating segregation, then the state should have nothing to worry about.
BAGENSTOS: I think that's right. I think that they should just lay all the information out there and if the voucher program is not making segregation in schools worse, then the Justice Department isn't going to stop it and the courts aren't going to stop it.