While President Barack Obama publicly celebrated the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech last week, his administration took action behind the scenes in Louisiana that was a complete rejection of King’s dream.
The Justice Department has challenged my state in court for having the temerity to start a scholarship program that frees low-income minority children from failing schools. In other words, Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder would rip children out of their schools and handcuff them to the failing schools they previously attended. And, in the ultimate irony, they are using desegregation orders set up to prevent discrimination against minority children to try to do it.
Never mind that 90 percent of the children receiving scholarships in Louisiana are minorities or that 100 percent of their parents choose to apply for these scholarships.
We as a country have made significant progress toward King’s dream. We have more work to do, but this blatant political maneuver by the Obama administration will set the fight for civil rights back decades.
We all know the harsh cycle of poverty that exists in the United States and that a disproportionate share of those in poverty are minorities. Studies of health care outcomes, incarceration levels and economic opportunity all show that education is key to improving quality of life.
Millions of single parents in this country work two jobs to make ends meet, hoping that their children won’t have the same struggles.
Obama and Holder think this should continue to be the reality. In Louisiana, we think the opposite is true. We believe every child deserves the opportunity to get a great education.
That’s why we started a school choice program in 2008 in New Orleans and expanded it statewide in 2012. Low-income families with children in schools graded C, D or F by the state are eligible to apply for a scholarship and send their children to schools of their choice.
The program works. From 2011 to 2013, students who had been trapped in failing schools and now attend scholarship schools showed improvement on literacy and math tests. The share of students performing at grade level rose 7 percent, state data show, even though in 2013, 60 percent of students taking the test had been in their new schools for only eight months. More than 90 percent of parents of students participating in the program reported satisfaction with their children’s schools.
This opportunity is perhaps these children’s best chance to escape the cycle of poverty. No one in their right mind could argue that the Justice Department’s efforts to block the scholarship program will help these kids.
Obama should do the right thing and order the Justice Department to drop the lawsuit. Not because I am asking, but because the parents and children in the scholarship program deserve an opportunity. For generations, the government has forced these families to hope for the best from failing schools. Shame on all of us for standing by and watching generations of children stay in failing schools that may have led them to lives of poverty.
We in Louisiana are rejecting the status quo because we believe every child should have the opportunity to succeed. A scholarship program is not a silver bullet for student success. Maybe a student will perform well in a traditional public school, or a charter school, or a virtual school, but the point is that parents should be able to decide, not bureaucrats in Baton Rouge or Washington.
If the president and the attorney general believe their path is right, I invite them to come to Louisiana and look these parents and children in the eyes and explain why they believe every child shouldn’t have a fair shake.
If the administration does not drop this lawsuit, we will fight every step of the way until the children prevail. Giving every child — no matter race or income — the opportunity to get a great education is a moral imperative.
It’s worth reminding the president of his own words about education. In his 2010 State of the Union address, Obama said: “The best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education. … And in this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential.”
The president was right, but he hasn’t made good on his words, and now he is threatening to break his promise to our children. Heed your own words, Mr. President, and give every child the opportunity to succeed.
Bobby Jindal, a Republican, is governor of Louisiana.