Give Eric Holder credit for cognitive racial dissonance. On nearly the same day the Attorney General spoke in Washington to honor the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech, his Justice Department sued to block the educational dreams of minority children in Louisiana.
Late last week, Justice asked a federal court to stop 34 school districts in the Pelican State from handing out private-school vouchers so kids can escape failing public schools. Mr. Holder's lawyers claim the voucher program appears "to impede the desegregation progress" required under federal law. Justice provides little evidence to support this claim, but there couldn't be a clearer expression of how the civil-rights establishment is locked in a 1950s time warp.
Passed in 2012, Louisiana's state-wide program guarantees a voucher to students from families with incomes below 250% of poverty and who attend schools graded C or below. The point is to let kids escape the segregation of failed schools, and about 90% of the beneficiaries are black.
For example, says the complaint, in several of those 22 districts "the voucher recipients were in the racial minority at the public school they attended before receiving the voucher." In other words, Justice is claiming that the voucher program may be illegal because minority kids made their failing public schools more white by leaving those schools to go to better private schools.
In one of only two specific examples in its footnotes, Justice says that Celilia Primary School (30.1% black) in St. Martin Parish District (46.5% black) lost all of six black voucher recipients. Justice claims the reduction in black students at Celilia increases "the difference between the school's black student percentage from the district's and reinforcing the school's racial identity as a white school in a predominantly black school district." Since when is 46.5% predominantly black?
All of this is even more dubious because the evidence from around the country is that vouchers enhance racial integration. Public school attendance is mainly determined by geography, so segregated neighborhoods produce segregated schools. Vouchers help poor minorities escape those boundaries to attend schools they otherwise couldn't. Seven of eight studies that have examined vouchers in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C., found that private schools that recipients attend are more diverse than public schools.
In any case, segregation is hardly the main obstacle to learning that it was for minority children in the days of "separate but equal." Today's civil-rights outrage is the millions of poor kids who can't escape failing schools whatever their racial make up.
Our guess—confirmed by sources in Louisiana—is that this lawsuit isn't really about integration. It's about helping the teachers union repeal the voucher law by any legal means, and the segregation gambit is the last one available. Justice gives this strategy away when it claims "jurisdiction over Louisiana" even for vouchers for students in districts without desegregation orders.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana has emerged as a leader in school reform, with city-wide charter schools in New Orleans and now statewide vouchers for the poor. A black Attorney General ought to be applauding this attempt to fulfill MLK's dream of equal educational opportunity. His lawsuit turns racial justice on its head.