DOJ Suit Against Louisiana School Choice Program: Is the Civil Rights Division’s True Objective Desegregation or Something Else?

By Alison Somin on Aug 29, 2013


The Justice Department has recently announced a lawsuit against Louisiana that would block students in districts under desegregation decrees from receiving any vouchers until approved by a federal court. The suit has drawn criticism from supporters of school choice programs, who claim that programs like Louisiana’s generally benefit racial and ethnic minority students.

Louisiana’s program, officially named the Louisiana Scholarship Program, lets low-income students attending public schools graded C, D,  or F attend private schools at taxpayer expense. According to the program’s website, 91% of the students participating in it are racial minorities.

DOJ argues that, by channeling African-American students out of majority Caucasian schools and vice versa, that the voucher program “impedes the desegregation process” that has been ongoing for 38 years.  But Louisiana state officials have criticized this claim sharply. State Education Superintendent John White told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that the majority of students in the voucher program are black and found it “ironic” that the suit would likely have the effect of keeping many poor black students in low performing schools.

The numbers presented in petition suggest that the shifts in racial balance are likely to be small. Independence Elementary School in Tangipahoa lost five white students to vouchers, meaning that there was about a 0.7% change to its racial composition. Cecilia Primary School lost six black students to the voucher program, an approximately 0.5% change. Another footnote suggests that the net loss may have been as large as “thirteen students per school.” Because this shift in “racial identifiability” looks so small, editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal speculated that “Our guess—confirmed by sources in Louisiana—is that this lawsuit isn’t really about integration. It’s about helping the teacher’s union repeal the voucher law by any legal means, and the segregation gambit is the last one available.”

Research indicates that school choice programs generally have the result of lessening segregation. According to a literature review by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, there have been eight empirical studies that look at whether voucher programs lessen or reduce segregation. Seven of these found that school choice programs move students from more segregated schools into less segregated ones. The eighth one found no effect.

There are no press releases or other materials on the Civil Rights Division’s website as of this writing about this case, suggesting that maybe DOJ would prefer that this new suit not attract much publicity.

Click here to read our comment policy.

Leave a Reply