In Louisiana, a Win for School Choice (and Students)

Late last summer, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sued the state of Louisiana over the implementation of its education scholarship program. The concern was that the Louisiana Opportunity Scholarship, designed specifically to help students in struggling schools, might be in violation of federal desegregation laws. A federal block or freeze on the program would have been a significant blow to one of the most significant education reforms passed anywhere in the United States in recent years, and in turn to the education reform movement as a whole.

Then, last Tuesday (November 19), the Justice Department relented. Rather than seeking an injunction against the program, the DOJ is now asking a federal district court in Louisiana to approve transparency measures that would require the state annually turn over information on students receiving a scholarship (name, race, what school they would be leaving with the aid of a scholarship and what school they plan to attend) to the DOJ for review. In short, the message seems to be: We don't see enough problems to sue you now, but we don't trust you any farther than we can throw you.

That the DOJ is no longer seeking an injunction is a huge win for Louisiana, its students, and the education reform movement. Just the same, the DOJ's continued efforts to interfere with the program create the impression that they're searching for opportunities to drop the federal hammer on it should they find any reason at all to do so.

Transparency in education is a good thing, a vital thing, especially if that transparency makes it easier for those actively participating in the education system -- namely parents, students, and educators -- to understand the inner workings, as well as the outcomes, of the machine. The problem here is that the federal government should not be interfering with a state-administered education program. The Louisiana Scholarship Program doesn't run on federal dollars. It should not be subject to (potential) federal strings.

What's most frustrating about this ordeal is that the program actually seems to be helping in the very arena that the feds are worried its hurting. The State of Louisiana commissioned Dr. Christine Rossell, a Boston University political science professor, to study the impact of the scholarship program in the state's 34 districts under federal desegregation orders. Rossell found that in all but 4 of the districts studied, racial imbalance was either improved or not impacted. In the four districts where imbalance worsened, Rossell termed the effects of the scholarship program to be "miniscule."

The report supported what Louisiana has claimed all along, that their scholarship program does not in any way worsen racial imbalance in the state of Louisiana. For now, the DOJ seems to agree, even if that agreement is a very cautious one. As previously stated, it's a major win for Louisiana and her students.

States that have no school choice programs (like my home state of Texas, for example) should be encouraged by the DOJ's decision. Fear of litigation is always a major concern when a state considers whether to pass a choice program, though typically the fear is that the lawsuit will come from within the state, not the federal government.

Here, at least in the short run, the feds have set a precedent that says: We'll let you do your thing, as long as long as you play by the rules. This is huge, because there are a lot of states out there that could benefit from a program like the Louisiana Opportunity Scholarship. Students in Louisiana -- and in the rest of America -- deserve a chance to pursue the kind of education that best suits their needs as learners. They don't deserve the federal government blocking programs that will allow them to do exactly that. So, for the time being, the DOJ is doing the right thing by holding off -- let's hope they remain that way.