Louisiana vouchers don’t discriminate

 

When the facts are on your side, argue the facts, an old lawyer’s dictum says. When the facts aren’t on your side, the Obama administration could add, argue discrimination.

That’s what’s happening next door in Louisiana, where a bold experiment in school vouchers has been challenged by the Justice Department on the flimsy charge that it would undo years of (failed) desegregation policies.

But now, the state has the facts to back up its experiment.

“A closely watched school voucher program that has come under scrutiny from the Obama administration because of worries it may harm federal desegregation efforts doesn’t have that effect, according to an analysis of the program the state filed in federal court late Thursday,” Politico reported last week. “And Louisiana said the racial imbalance in about 16 school districts actually improved because of it.”

The vouchers program is in its second year, but the Obama administration sought to block it next year by filing an injunction.

“Louisiana hired Boston University political science Professor Christine Rossell to analyze the effect of vouchers in 34 districts in the state under desegregation orders,” Politico explained. “Rossell found that in all but four of the districts — some of which are majority white, some majority black and some more evenly split — vouchers improved or had no effect on racial imbalance. And in the districts where racial imbalance worsened, the effects were ‘miniscule.’”

The vouchers will allow students at failing public schools to transfer to private schools, with much or all of the tuition paid by public funds. Most — 76 percent — of the students benefiting from vouchers are minority students.

“Rossell’s analysis looks at the district demographics during the 2011-12 school year, before the voucher program expanded statewide, and during the 2012-13 school year, after the expansion,” Politico reports. “She used the ‘interracial exposure index’ to determine racial balance in each school district, something she said she has used in dozens of school desegregation cases she has worked on. Two districts, St. James Parish and Lincoln Parish, saw ‘fairly substantial reductions’ in racial imbalance, Rossell concluded.”

And that’s exactly what federal desegregation orders sought to do. That’s a different goal from the voucher program, which doesn’t seek to artificially manipulate student populations to achieve a nebulous “balance.” Instead, the voucher program seeks to help students in bad schools, regardless of their race or income level.

“The scholarship program does not provide aid to private racial discrimination, and it does not discriminate or segregate on the basis of race,” the state’s legal brief says. “Rather, the program is designed to empower parents to decide what school is best for their own children and to provide a desperately needed alternative for children from impoverished families who would otherwise be trapped in failing public schools, the vast majority of whom — over 85 percent — are African-American.”

Why is this important to Texas? Louisiana has taken a far bolder step toward real educational reform than anything we’ve seen so far in Austin. Texas lawmakers should look east, and watch this experiment closely.

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