Legal Intern, Manhattan Institute's Center for Legal Policy
The Justice Department likes to proclaim itself to be an advocate for ensuring equality of opportunity across the entire socioeconomic spectrum of America. In terms of education, it likes to claim that universal access to education for the disadvantaged is the key to maintaining a stable democracy and a generally-inclusive civic society. Ostensibly, this is certainly a salutary position, and certainly a noble policy aim.
There always seems to be, however, a disconnect that constantly emerges with the stated ends and the desired means of reaching this goal. The latest example comes to us in the form of a lawsuit aimed at halting Louisiana's voucher program. Attorney General Eric Holder is asking a federal court to halt the use of vouchers, pursuant to the mandates of a case called Brumfield v. Dodd. The stated reason is that the racial balance of schools will get altered in contravention of the desegregation orders laid out in Brumfield, and that the state should have to seek federal approval for each district in which it wishes to utilize vouchers.
Even before analyzing the legal missteps, the Justice Department's logic implicitly admits two things: 1) That racial balancing should take precedence over educational opportunity for low-income students and 2) that the chance of vouchers not meeting the Brumfield racial balancing standard is enough to repudiate the entire voucher program. If equality of educational opportunity is indeed the desired end, then this approach does not seem to be the most efficient means of reaching it.
Moreover, the Justice Department is misapplying the legal standard. Clint Bolick, vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute and advocate for the Louisiana chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, recently wrote about the myriad misapplications:
Curiously, the Justice Department did not file its motion in any of the ongoing Louisiana desegregation cases. Instead, it seeks an injunction in Brumfield v. Dodd , a case filed nearly 40 years ago challenging a program that provided state funding for textbooks and transportation for private "segregation academies," to which white students were fleeing to avoid integration. Since 1975, private schools have had to demonstrate that they do not discriminate in order to participate in that program.
The Louisiana Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program restricts participation to private schools that meet the Brumfield nondiscrimination requirements. The program further requires private schools to admit students on a random basis. Thus the program clearly complies with Brumfield. And the Brumfield court has no jurisdiction over the desegregation decrees to which the Justice Department seeks to subject the voucher program.
Nor can any court properly force the state to seek advance approval from the Justice Department for a clearly nondiscriminatory program that advances the education of black children. As the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, when it struck down the "pre-clearance" formula of the 1965 Voting Rights Act regarding federal approval for electoral changes, states cannot be forced to submit their decisions to federal oversight "based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day."
It does not seem like too much of a stretch to assume that, when the proffered means run so afoul of the stated ends, there is some sort of variable intervening between the point A to point B relationship. This interference generally takes the form of some sort of special interest or political motive that ends up taking precedence over the general welfare. In this case, there seems to be a symbiotic relationship between the Justice Department (which does not want to cede power over enforcing desegregation decrees) and the local school districts (which obtain federal funds in connection with these decrees). As long as the political class favors power perpetuation over the welfare of its constituents, we will continue to see the advocacy of mutated means towards empty ends.