In 2008, under the leadership of Governor Bobby Jindal, Louisiana launched an educational scholarship program in New Orleans. The Louisiana Scholarship Program, similar to Alabama's new scholarship program created by the Accountability Act, is designed to provide low-income students zoned for underperforming schools with opportunities to attend qualified private schools within the State. In 2012, Governor Jindal prioritized expansion of the program that is now available to students anywhere in the State. Over 5,000 students took advantage of the program in its first year.
In August, the U.S. Department of Justice petitioned a federal court to block the distribution of scholarships in Louisiana school districts that are restricted by desegregation orders. Out of Louisiana's 69 school districts, 34 are still operating under desegregation orders put in place during the Civil Rights Era. These decades-old orders evolved from lawsuits over segregation in public schools and require that school districts meet a variety of racial quotas and proportions in student body and administration. The court orders have no definitive end and are monitored by both the federal judge originally assigned to the case and the U.S. Department of Justice. However, there is very little readily available information on the status of these orders and school districts seeking relief face an uphill battle in even knowing where to begin the daunting process of seeking release.
The Justice Department's August filing asked the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Louisiana to stop the State from awarding any school vouchers or scholarships to students attending school in districts operating under federal desegregation orders unless and until the State receives authorization from the Court. In essence, the U.S. Department of Justice chose to prioritize the stringent, and in some cases arbitrary, race-based requirements of a nearly 40-year-old court order over the immediate opportunity for a low-income child to have a chance to pursue a better education outside of his or her assigned failing school. The irony is that a State-based study on the racial effects of Louisiana's scholarship program concluded that the school choice program either improved or had no impact on racial ratios within the schools.
Much like Louisiana, over 50 school districts in Alabama remain under various desegregation orders. In July, the Huntsville City School District received a letter from the Justice Department reminding the district of its obligations under a standing 1970 desegregation order. Citing Alabama's passage of the Accountability Act, Justice officials warned that any public-to-public transfers permitted by the Act may not be allowed under the federal court order. Thus, a student hoping to leave a failing public school for a nonfailing public under the Act cannot do so unless the transfer furthers integration.
It was reported in August that Huntsville City had only approved eight transfers out of 502 requests in an effort to follow the Justice Department's directives and did not plan to violate the federal desegregation requirements by implementing the Accountability Act. Governor Jindal's proactive effort on behalf of Louisiana's students is instructive, however. While the federal government has repeatedly shown its willingness as of late to thwart Republican-led reforms at the state level, the situation in Louisiana also reveals that the Administration is not always willing to weather the negative publicity that comes when a state pushes back. Last week, DOJ dropped its petition for a permanent injunction against the scholarship program, although it will continue its quest for more federal review.
Every Alabama student zoned for a failing school should have the chance at a better education, regardless of race. Like Louisiana, Alabama's state and local leaders must adopt a proactive approach to plug the slow leak of state authority, especially when the federal government's actions threaten to impede educational opportunities for our students.