Yesterday, Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and four other prominent Congressional Republicans fired off a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, urging him to reconsider a motion the Department of Justice recently filed seeking an injunction against the implementation of Louisiana’s voucher program in the thirty-four schools in thirteen districts still under federal desegregation orders.
Notably, Boehner’s letter mistakenly claims the Department of Justice is targeting thirty-four “districts,” which clearly indicates that neither he nor anyone else who signed onto the letter actually read the DOJ’s memorandum. I’ll do them a favor; here it is.
Put simply, the Jindal administration never considered the effects or ramifications of the voucher program on federal desegregation compliance, and because the Department of Justice is duty-bound to enforce the law and after months in which the Louisiana Department of Education repeatedly refused to provide the documentation they requested, once the information was finally received and thoroughly analyzed, the DOJ was compelled to act.
It’s almost as if the Jindal administration and the Louisiana Department of Education were purposely goading the Justice Department. The DOJ is not and has never claimed that Louisiana’s voucher program, as a matter of policy, inherently violates federal desegregation orders; instead, the DOJ argues that the program, as it has been applied, does not sufficiently comply with desegregation orders in thirteen school districts (even though Louisiana has sixty-four parishes, there are over ninety school districts). Importantly, the Louisiana Department of Education refused to provide the DOJ information on the “schools selected” by over 1,200 voucher students. As has been extensively documented here and elsewhere, the Louisiana Department of Education and Superintendent John White have repeatedly and consistently attempted to delay, obsfucate, and deny legitimate requests for public records concerning, in particular, the school voucher program.
Regardless of what your own personal opinions are about the merits of federal desegregation orders, the State of Louisiana is still compelled to comply with the law and to work with the Department of Justice in order to ensure compliance. And when the Louisiana Department of Education and the Jindal administration refuse to even attempt to cooperate in good faith with the DOJ, they are, in effect, asking for a motion for mandamus. Make no mistake: Bobby Jindal wasn’t shocked or stunned by the Department of Justice’s decision to file a motion; Bobby Jindal was setting them up for this. With his abysmal poll numbers and with his voucher program already under siege by state courts, a lawsuit from the Obama administration on desegregation was, politically, a no-brainer.
And so not surprisingly, immediately after the Department of Justice filed its motion, Bobby Jindal sprung into action, appearing on a number of national cable news shows, writing columns in Politico and The Washington Post, and riling up his fellow conservatives with indignant outrage. Even though Jindal’s voucher school program has lost all credibility in Louisiana, it could still appeal nationally, as a concept, because while Bobby Jindal may not be good at implementing policies, he’s always been good at talking about ideology.
But here’s the problem: In order to make his case for Louisiana’s voucher program, Bobby Jindal was forced to lie about the program, over and over and over again.
First, and most obviously, he and Superintendent White were almost gleeful at pointing out that more than 90% of voucher recipients are African-Americans. They think they’re bragging, but there are a few enormous problems with this statistic. Even by itself, this statistic more than justifies the Department of Justice’s motion.
Ostensibly, more than 50% of Louisiana public school students may qualify for school vouchers. According to the last Census, Louisiana is 63% white and 32% African-American. Unquestionably, there are a number of underfunded, struggling, inner-city public schools in which the majority of students are African-American, just as there are rural schools in which the vast majority are white. And in the abstract, to those who don’t really appreciate the everyday reality of Louisiana, it may seem intuitive that its voucher program has attracted a radically disproportionate number of African-American applicants.
If you didn’t know anything about Louisiana or its voucher program, these numbers may seem easy to explain: African-American kids go to the worst schools in the state, and they’re utilizing vouchers in order to enroll and attend academically rigorous and exclusive private schools, which, historically, have been almost exclusively white. So even if the program is radically disproportionate, it’s actually ensuring for increased racial integration in Louisiana’s best private schools.
Unfortunately, that’s just not true. None of it. The truth is, from the very beginning, Bobby Jindal and John White worked with a group of highly-paid political consultants to market the voucher program, almost exclusively, to African-Americans. The Louisiana Black Alliance for Educational Opportunities (or LA BAEO) was created, seemingly out of thin air, by a national organization of conservative “school choice” activists, and they spent months touring the state and recruiting African-Americans to participate in the program, with very little understanding of the public schools they were attempting to disparage as “failures.” For example, about a year ago, I got into a Twitter exchange with one of LA BAEO’s principal consultants over remarks he had made about Peabody Magnet High School in my hometown of Alexandria. Peabody may not be an academic powerhouse, but it is a damn good school with an amazing campus and a deep connection with its community. But nonetheless, LA BAEO held town hall meetings in Alexandria in an attempt to convince parents to take their kids out of Peabody and, instead, enroll them in voucher schools. It didn’t seem to matter that the voucher schools in Central Louisiana are, with only a few exceptions, fly-by-night church schools with shoddy facilities, questionable finances, and uncertified teachers.
See, the real issue– and how Bobby Jindal duped John Boehner– is that, on the whole, Louisiana’s voucher schools are significantly worse than the public schools. Jindal and Boehner both argue that Louisiana’s voucher program provides students with the opportunity to seek a “better education.” In reality, however, Louisiana’s voucher program is comprised, in large part, of unaccountable and completely unregulated schools, many of which rely on thoroughly discounted, ahistorical, and anti-scientific curricula.
Last year, voucher students scored thirty points less on the LEAP test than their peers in public schools. Notably, while Superintendent White and Governor Jindal love to use test results as a way of gauging the performance of public schools, neither of them were willing to make the same argument against the dramatically worse performance of voucher schools.
Additionally, earlier this year, the Louisiana Department of Education revealed that it was unable to properly audit the expenditures of 91.7% of the voucher schools in the program. Only two schools actually provided the necessary documentation for the third-party auditor, and one of those two schools was removed from the program after the auditor uncovered a series of improper expenditures.
Perhaps some in Louisiana are under the impression that the voucher program allows kids to attend prestigious private schools like Jesuit and Newman in New Orleans or STM in Lafayette; those schools, however, are not participating. Instead, the overwhelming majority of voucher schools have names like “New Living Word,” “Light City Academy,” “Cenla Christian Academy” and “Family Worship Center Academy,” among others, many of which are brand new and at least one that is entirely comprised of voucher students.
No matter how you slice it or dice it, Bobby Jindal and John White are promoting a system that dishonestly tricks parents into thinking that they’re making a “choice” to enroll their kid in a better private school.
But Louisiana is a small enough state. The national media may be less inclined to look at the numbers: The voucher program is removing highly-ambitious, smart, young, African-American students and forcing them out of their neighborhood school in order to enroll them in new church schools, and the Governor, of all people, says this is better.
We’re not sending 91% of Louisiana’s voucher students to the best and most important voucher schools. This is not about integrating African-American students in traditionally and well-established and high-performing private schools; this is nothing to do with integration and almost everything to do with quietly re-codifying segregation.