Editor’s note: This piece is in response to the U.S. Department of Justice’s legal action against the voucher program in Louisiana. It is co-authored by Howard Fuller, board chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and Kevin Chavous, executive counsel of the American Federation for Children.
It is easier to say we must take the long view when grappling with the issue of social justice than it is to actually practice it. Such is the problem the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has today as it wrongly inserts itself in the effort to give low-‐income children in Louisiana an opportunity to get a better education. DOJ is suing the state of Louisiana, more specifically 34 parishes in the state that are still under a desegregation law, claiming that the state’s school choice scholarship program unlawfully allows students to leave failing public schools and go to high-‐performing private schools by way of a scholarship. DOJ thinks it’s wrong and illegal to allow that to happen.
When one takes the long view, it’s necessary to understand the moment in history in which you exist and what is the primary problem being faced at that particular moment in the continuum of the struggle for social justice over time.
In America today the primary problem facing children from low-income and working class families is getting a quality education. The Louisiana Scholarship Program was created to give these students a way to escape failing schools. It allows them to apply for a scholarship and choose a school that for them holds the promise of a better education.
The DOJ has wrongly decided that allowing these children a life line to getting a better education must take a back seat to whether or not they impact desegregation. No one with any sense of history will deny that at one point in time the state of Louisiana used this power to fund schools that were for whites only.
But that was then and this is now. In this instance, the state of Louisiana is on the right side of history because its actions are giving children the best chance to ultimately participate in mainstream American society by giving them access to better educational opportunities.
In today’s world, ultimately, the place where integration takes place is the market place. If the students this program is meant to serve arrive at the market place ill-equipped to compete, they will never be integrated in our society. Not only will they not be able to function as economically productive citizens, they will also not be able to be effective participants in the effort to engage in the practice of freedom – the transformation of their world.
DOJ might want to heed the advice of Judge Robert Carter, who, as a young attorney, had the responsibility to put the social science literature before the Supreme Court in the historic Brown v. Board case. This literature was key to influencing the decision that pushed forth desegregation of schools in America.
He said, “Integrated education must not be lost as the ultimate solution. That would be a disaster in my judgment. For the present, however, to focus on integration alone is a luxury only the black middle class can afford. They have the means to desert the public schools if dissatisfied, can obtain remediation if necessary, and can get their children into colleges or some income-‐producing enterprise. The immediate and urgent need of the black urban poor is the attainment, in real life terms and in settings of virtually total black-‐white school separation, at least of some of the benefits and protection of the constitutional guarantee of equal educational opportunity that Brown requires. The only way to insure that thousands of the black urban poor will have even a remote chance of obtaining the tools needed for them to compete in the marketplace for a decent job and its accompanying benefits is to concentrate on having quality education delivered to the schools these blacks are attending, and in all likelihood will be attending for at least another generation.”
We strongly agree with Judge Carter. DOJ is wrong in this pursuit and we urge it to drop its lawsuit. Our children are our most precious gift from God. They need us to protect them, not hurt them; provide for them, not take away from them; create, not deny opportunity for them. We are sure this is what DOJ believes and they have now have the chance to prove it by dropping this ill-conceived and anti‐historical legal action.