Don’t Buy Conservative Ideas Sold With Civil Rights Rhetoric

Jeff Bryant

Last week brought the spectacle of one of America’s more prominent conservative Republican governors haranguing the nation’s first black president for setting “the fight for civil rights back for decades.”

Then, one of the conservative movement’s leading opinion outlets compared President Obama to the late Alabama governor George Wallace who is famous for declaring, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

What’s going on here? Have conservatives – who led the resistance to civil rights and school desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s and continued to fight it in the 1980s and up into recent times – now become staunch defenders of the civil rights movement and school racial desegregation?

Hardly. What’s really happening is that conservatives are appropriating the language of the civil rights movement to accomplish a goal that has nothing to do with rescuing poor African-American students from low-quality education services. And unfortunately, too many on the left aren’t aware of what’s happening or are following along.

Conservatives, Champions of Civil Rights?

First, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal penned an op-ed in The Washington Post that took after president Obama and his administration’s lawsuit against his state’s school voucher program.

Wrote Jindal, “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 … And, in the ultimate irony, they are using desegregation orders set up to prevent discrimination against minority children to try to do it.”

The George Wallace comparison came from the editors of that bastion of conservatism The National Review, who wrote, “Playing the Wallace role this time is Eric Holder, whose Justice Department is petitioning a U.S. district court to abolish a Louisiana school-choice program.”

There are plenty of reasons to doubt the sincerity of these conservatives. First, it would seem sensible on its face that when there is evidence of a “failing school,” it is incumbent on political leaders to fix it. Creating a voucher program – what Jindal has cleverly rebranded as “scholarships” –  to provide an escape route for a few children does nothing for the ones left behind.

To evoke the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in an appeal for a voucher program, as Jindal does, is farcical. King didn’t “have a dream” for a fortunate few black children to escape poverty and prejudice because their parents were savvy enough to work the system. His dream was for “all” children.

For the editors of the National Review to make an argument for vouchers and “parental choice” based on their belief in desegregation is beyond cynical. As Pope “Mac” McCorkle, a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, recently recalled, “The National Review denounced the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education as an ‘act of judicial usurpation.'”

The magazine’s founder and editor at the time, William F. Buckley, “insisted that Southern whites … represented ‘for the time being, the advanced race.’ And in 1960 Buckley declared: ‘We frown on any effort of the Negroes to attain social equality by bending the instrument of the state to their purposes.’”

The Louisiana Case for Vouchers And Choice

Really, you have to admire conservative messaging. From the Supreme Court down, they’ve cleverly figured out how to strike down programs that achieve real school desegregation while they advocate for market-based education gimmicks like vouchers and other forms of “school choice,” using the language of equal opportunity for all – as if a competitive market has ever been an arena where everyone wins despite their circumstances.

Further, conservatives make their case for vouchers and choice despite evidence of what their schemes produce.

Louisiana’s voucher-choice program was patterned after one created in New Orleans, which has resulted in, according to a detailed account from NOLA blogger Mercedes Schneider, “a tedious, open-enrollment process designed to destroy all sense of the community school.”

Parents are saddled every year with completing multiple applications for multiple schools with no guarantees of getting into preferred programs – even if the school is next door. Many of the best-performing schools require admission tests that block all but the best students.

The type of “parental choice” exemplified by the New Orleans choice-voucher program, according to Schneider, is “a forced competition for too few … seats at preferred and thriving schools. As such, the requirement of parental choice in New Orleans contributes to the endless churn upon which privatization depends, always keeping the community off-balance as privatizers move in, make their money, and move out.”

In fact, Reuters reporter Stephanie Simon called the Louisiana voucher program “a bold bid to privatize education.” Some school children do get into good schools for sure, but that only accounts for “a few slots,” according to Simon.

Schools “willing to accept the most voucher students,” however, resemble nothing that would be considered a high-quality education. In many of the schools targeted to receive voucher money, Simon found students in “cubicles” or “bare-bones classrooms,” working through curriculum materials influenced by Christianity, in school buildings bereft of libraries or playgrounds.

More recently, at the Care2.com site, Crystal Shepeard reported, “Of the approximately 130 voucher schools, 20 purposely use textbooks and guides in their ‘science’ programs that promote Biblical theories.”

If the education of Louisiana voucher schools is shaky, the finances are even shakier.

A recent audit of Louisiana voucher schools found “systemic, widespread problems,” in particular, with most of the schools refusing to comply with the requirement to keep voucher money in a separate account. The one school that did comply – the school, in fact, receiving the most voucher slots from the program – was found to be charging the voucher students more than other students, running up over $400,000 in overcharges to the state.

As Think Progress recently reported, “A state court held in May that the funding mechanism for the voucher program violated the state Constitution.” Governor Jindal found funds from “elsewhere, and proceeded with implementation.” And then, another court “temporarily suspended the voucher program over concerns it was interfering with desegregation, but it allowed the program to proceed while the desegregation challenge continued.”

Bottom line: As a result of Louisiana’s voucher program, some $30 million has been funneled from public schools to private schools, while, in the meantime, voucher students scored almost 30 points below average on the most recent state assessments. For NOLA schools specifically, no one has yet to prove with any certainty that the choice-voucher program has resulted in any significant achievement gains.

Most likely what conservatives want now is to roll out the Louisiana model to the rest of the country and use the language of civil rights and racial desegregation to mask what is essentially a privatization program.

It’s still a mystery if Democrats will oppose this.

Time To Get Wise

Unfortunately, some Democrats, including those in the Obama administration, continue to sound like conservatives when discussing the issue of school desegregation and civil rights.

In a recent airing of the Diane Rehm show, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was asked about his administration’s lawsuit against the Louisiana voucher programs. Not only did he reply that he was “not familiar” with the case, but he made the even bigger mistake of saying, “So whatever we can do to continue to increase integration in a voluntary way – I don’t think you could force these kinds of things – we want to be very, very thoughtful and to try to do more in that area quite frankly.”

What Duncan’s boss, the president, is doing through his Department of Justice to the state of Louisiana is hardly an attempt at increasing “voluntary” compliance with racial desegregation in schools. And there are good reasons for that.

The economist Richard Rothstein, who bristled at Duncan’s comment on Rehm’s show, wrote later at his blog at Economic Policy Institute, “Integration is necessary for the success of black students … When African-American students from impoverished families are concentrated together in racially isolated schools, in racially isolated neighborhoods, exposed only to other students who also come from low-income, crime-ridden neighborhoods and from homes where parents have low educational levels themselves, the obstacles to these students’ success are most often overwhelming.”

Racial integration is also academically beneficial to white students. As a new mini-documentary by The New York Times recounted, when the Charlotte-Mecklenberg school district in North Carolina was forced into racial desegregation in 1971, the busing plan included white students who were sent to what used to be an all-black school.

When whites arrived at the school, there was tension for sure. But as the documentary recounted, racial integration at West Charlotte High in the long run led to a model plan that benefited middle-class students of all ethnicities.

The documentary included an interview with Professor Roslyn Mickelson at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, who “conducted studies concluding that children of any race who attended diverse schools were more likely to succeed, in areas like graduating, avoiding crime and attending college.”

Roththstein noted Duncan’s comment was also particularly troubling at a time when segregation is increasing – even, as the Times documentary noted, segregation based on income or class, and not race.

What Duncan’s comment represented, lamented Roghtstein, is the current “conventional thinking,” even among “most liberal policymakers,” that the Democratic party has “abandoned racial integration as a goal” and taken steps that “not only maintain segregation” but also increasingly are “re-segregating children and communities.”

President Obama and his Department of Justice are to be applauded for bucking this trend and taking Louisiana’s segregating and privatizing voucher program to task. Arne Duncan – and other like-minded Democrats – had better get with the program.

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