Politics

Bobby Jindal is winning the school choice argument

Bobby Jindal is winning the school choice argument

Attorney General Eric Holder’s effort to use ancient desegregation laws to kill Louisiana’s school choice program is “bewildering, if not downright perverse,” “ridiculous,” “absurd,” and “appalling,” according to… the Washington Postin an editorial that might qualify as the strongest punch this liberal paper has ever thrown at the Obama Administration:

Nine of 10 Louisiana children who receive vouchers to attend private schools are black. All are poor and, if not for the state assistance, would be consigned to low-performing or failing schools with little chance of learning the skills they will need to succeed as adults. So it’s bewildering, if not downright perverse, for the Obama administration to use the banner of civil rights to bring a misguided suit that would block these disadvantaged students from getting the better educational opportunities they are due.

The Post’s editors don’t think much of the Justice Department’s argument that vouchers will ruin the delicate racial balance of the student bodies at failing public schools:

Since most of the students using vouchers are black, it is, as State Education Superintendent John White pointed out to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “a little ridiculous” to argue that the departure of mostly black students to voucher schools would make their home school systems less white. Every private school participating in the voucher program must comply with the color-blind policies of the federal desegregation court orders.

The government’s argument that “the loss of students through the voucher program reversed much of the progress made toward integration” becomes even more absurd upon examination of the cases it cited in its petition. Consider the analysis from University of Arkansas professor of education reform Jay P. Greene of a school that lost five white students through vouchers and saw a shift in racial composition from 29.6 percent white to 28.9 percent white. Another school that lost six black students and saw a change in racial composition from 30.1 percent black to 29.2 percent black. “Though the students . . . almost certainly would not have noticed a difference, the racial bean counters at the DOJ see worsening segregation,” Mr. Greene wrote on his blog.

The number that should matter to federal officials is this: Roughly 86 percent of students in the voucher program came from schools that were rated D or F. Mr. White called ironic using rules to fight racism to keep students in failing schools; we think it appalling.

The whole editorial reads as though it might have been ghost-written by me and Governor Jindal, although I would have found a way to work in a Willy Wonka metaphor, because I’m a great believer in using cultural allusions to illustrate absurdity.  (The Post’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, just declared that the paper’s new Number One rule will be “Don’t be boring.”  I’m here to help if you need me, guys.)

As it happens, Governor Jindal went on to publish his own op-ed in the Washington Post on Wednesday, and he pulled no punches:

While President Obama was publicly celebrating the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech last week, his administration took action behind the scenes in Louisiana that was a complete rejection of King’s dream.

The Justice Department has challenged our state in court for having the temerity to start a scholarship program that frees low-income minority children from failing schools. In other words, Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder would rip children out of their schools and handcuff them to the failing schools they previously attended. And, in the ultimate irony, they are using desegregation orders set up to prevent discrimination against minority children to try to do it.

Never mind that 90 percent of the children receiving scholarships in Louisiana are minorities or that 100 percent of their parents choose to apply for these scholarships.

By his own words, the president is fighting for the right of these children to live the American dream, but his actions would destroy their dreams.

This was an especially ill-timed action by the Administration, wasn’t it?  Not only is Jindal correct about the tragic spectacle of the Administration crushing the dreams of children and their parents on the anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, it’s also an unfortunate illustration of the way antediluvian laws from a bygone era hold “progressives” in stasis.  It’s always 1965 for the “Forward!” crowd.

Jindal touted the success of his program, calling for similar long-overdue innovations around the country:

The program works. From 2011 to 2013, students who had been trapped in failing schools and now attend scholarship schools showed improvement on literacy and math tests. The share of students performing at grade level rose 7 percent state data show, even though in 2013, 60 percent of students taking the test had been in their new schools for only eight months. More than 90 percent of parents of students participating in the program reported satisfaction with their children’s schools.

This opportunity is perhaps these children’s best chance to escape the cycle of poverty. No one in their right mind could argue that the Justice Department’s efforts to block the scholarship program will help these kids. This can only be an attempt to curry favor with the government unions that provide financial largess and political power.

President Obama should do the right thing and order the Justice Department to drop the lawsuit. Not because I am asking, but because the parents and children in the scholarship program deserve an opportunity. For generations, the government has forced these families to hope for the best from failing schools. Shame on all of us for standing by and watching generations of children stay in failing schools that may have led them to lives of poverty.

We in Louisiana are rejecting the status quo because we believe every child should have the opportunity to succeed. A scholarship program is not a silver bullet for student success. Maybe a student will perform well in a traditional public school, or a charter school, or a virtual school, but the point is that parents should be able to decide, not bureaucrats in Baton Rouge or Washington, D.C.

He vowed to “fight every step of the way until the children prevail,” and invited President Obama and his Attorney General to come to Louisiana, “look these parents and children in the eyes, and explain why they believe every child shouldn’t have a fair shake.”

Earlier this week, Watchdog.org took a look at another school choice program, Opportunity Scholarships, which Barack Obama famously tried to kill as soon as he got into office.  (House Speaker John Boehner and Senator Joe Lieberman were eventually able to squeeze more funding from the Administration.)  After noting that parents involved in the program are almost universally happy with it, Watchdog passed along the results of a study of Opportunity Scholarships by Professor Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas:

During the program’s first five years, Wolf collected data from program participants and a control group, evaluating high school graduation rates, academic achievement, parent and student satisfaction with schools, and parent and student views of the schools’ safety.

Nearly 4,000 students were awarded scholarships during that time.

Compared to a 70 percent graduation rate in the control group, 91 percent of scholarship recipients graduated from high school. Academic gains were modest overall, but were more pronounced in certain subgroups – girls, for example, made greater progress in reading, Wolf said.

Parents noticeably were more likely to rate their children’s schools higher, but students’ satisfaction remained constant.

“That could be for any number of reasons,” Wolf said. “The things about the school that satisfy parents – more homework, stricter discipline – don’t necessarily satisfy children.”

Scholarship parents tended to rate their children’s schools to be safer.

Scholarship students’ overall safety ratings were similar to the control group, but they rated their private schools safer in specific key categories: They were less likely to report seeing someone with a gun or knife at school, being the victim of theft, or being threatened with physical harm.

While academic performance was only modestly better, Wolf noted that “there were no negative findings” in the study.

Wolf also found higher rates of college enrollment, and more persistence in college, for both the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship kids and the beneficiaries of a similar program in Milwaukee.  He offers a hypothesis about the disparity between modest academic benefits and enormous increases in the graduation rate:

“It’s hard to move student test scores a long distance in a short period of time, especially if the kids are older,” he said. “I suspect what these private schools are doing is instilling character virtues in the students, and grit and persistence and self-discipline. Those character traits help students overcome challenges and persist in school and raises their aspirations for further education.”

One of the parents quoted by Watchdog praised the emphasis of private schools upon parental involvement: “If your child misses school and you didn’t call, the school will call you.  If there’s something going on with your child, the teacher will call you.  They seem to be really vested in the interest of their students. No matter what issues my child may have … that I may not see, the teachers are going to let me know and are going to be involved.”

What could be more effective at getting parents involved in the education of their children than allowing the parents to serve as informed consumers of educational product, rather than having them dump their kids into the assigned dreary public school?  Some critics of school choice say that such programs have a built-in selection bias, because only involved parents fight to “win the lottery” and get their kids out of failing schools, and parental involvement is said to be a vital component of scholastic success.  If that’s the case, then why aren’t the children of such concerned parents able to prosper before they “win the lottery” and get a scholarship or voucher?  Clearly the schools themselves are a major factor, and they’re letting these kids down.

Jindal’s reforms are bringing a lot more than “modest” academic success to the beneficiaries, because the schools they’re escaping from are in particularly dire condition.  Also, if Professor Wolf’s hypothesis is correct, it follows that allowing children to benefit from school choice earlier in life will bring greater long-term academic gains, along with the highly desirable enhanced graduation rates that have already been observed.  The Watchdog article notes that nationwide, school choice programs have not yet produced drastic improvements in public schools due to competition… because the programs are too small, according to education director Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute:

Most voucher programs are aimed at students with special needs or low incomes, or who live in failing districts.

“The program’s too small. These tiny niche programs for a couple of kids in a poor area, there’s no way that just those kids are going to change the average test scores of every kid in the country,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to turn education around if you limit the most innovative and exciting education options to small carve-outs of students.”

Clearly we need more school choice – bigger programs for a broader base of students, beginning at a younger age.  Governor Jindal’s leading the way into the future, while Barack Obama and Eric Holder are the stone-faced prison guards for a failed past.  The Washington Post editorial board describes the Obama Administration’s behavior as a baffling, frustrating, incomprehensible mystery, but there’s nothing at all mysterious about it: the Democrat Party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the teachers’ unions, and will use every available weapon to protect union interests.  They’re also captive to statist ideology, true believers in huge national top-down programs run by entrenched bureaucracies.  They will never accept fundamental change to the system, and until everyone admits the public education system is broken beyond superficial repair, sincere reformers can do little except demonstrate the benefits of escaping from it.

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