WaPo: DoJ trying to trap poor, black kids in failing schools

“Bewildering.” “Perverse.” These aren’t the words of Charles Krauthammer or Marc Thiessen on the pages of the Washington Post in reaction to the Department of Justice lawsuit against Louisiana’s school-voucher program, but those of the Post’s editors.  The DoJ argued in its lawsuit that the vouchers intend to undo segregation, but since 90% of voucher recipients in the program are black, the Post pronounces itself mystified as to what Attorney General Eric Holder could possibly mean:

NINE OF 10 Louisiana children who receive vouchers to attend private schools are black. All are poor and, if not for the state assistance, would be consigned to low-performing or failing schools with little chance of learning the skills they will need to succeed as adults. So it’s bewildering, if not downright perverse, for the Obama administration to use the banner of civil rights to bring a misguided suit that would block these disadvantaged students from getting the better educational opportunities they are due.

The Justice Department has petitioned a U.S. District Courtto bar Louisiana from awarding vouchers for the 2014-15 school year to students in public school systems that are under federal desegregation orders, unless the vouchers are first approved by a federal judge. The government argues that allowing students to leave their public schools for vouchered private schools threatens to disrupt the desegregation of school systems. A hearing is tentatively set for Sept. 19.

In other words, the DoJ wants to treat education policy with the same preclearance policy as the Supreme Court struck down in the decision on the Voting Rights Act. As Holder did in response to that decision, this is just another attempt to demagogue on racial division in order to (a) expand the reach of federal power at the expense of state and local government, and (b) use that power to protect its allies in teachers unions.  School vouchers endanger public-sector education jobs by using competition and choice, two virtues the unions (and this administration) oppose in almost every manifestation.

The Post fails to draw the analogy to the DoJ’s irrational arguments on the VRA, but they don’t miss much else:

The number that should matter to federal officials is this: Roughly 86 percent of students in the voucher program came from schools that were rated D or F. Mr. White called ironic using rules to fight racism to keep students in failing schools; we think it appalling.

Unfortunately, though, it is not a surprise from an administration that, despite its generally progressive views on school reform, has proven to be hostile — as witnessed by its petty machinations against D.C.’s voucher program — to the school choice afforded by private-school vouchers. Mr. White told us that from Day One, the five-year-old voucher program has been subject to unrelenting scrutiny and questions from federal officials. Louisiana parents are clamoring for the choice afforded by this program; the state is insisting on accountability; poor students are benefiting. The federal government should get out of the way.

By the way, the headline for this post isn’t a reductio ad absurdum for the Post’s argument.  Their actual headline reads “Justice Department bids to trap poor, black children in ineffective schools”.  That’s a powerful accusation, and it’s a form of fighting fire with fire that one would not expect from a center-left editorial board such as the Post’s.

Nor is that the only surprising broadside against the education establishment on that end of the spectrum.  Last week, Salon offered an essay by Peter Gray which argued that we should get rid of compulsory education altogether — at least in the model currently used:

Compulsory schooling has been a fixture of our culture now for several generations. It’s hard today for most people to even imagine how children would learn what they must for success in our culture without it. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are so enamored with schooling that they want even longer school days and school years. Most people assume that the basic design of schools, as we know them today, emerged from scientific evidence about how children learn best. But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Schools as we know them today are a product of history, not of research into how children learn. The blueprint still used for today’s schools was developed during the Protestant Reformation, when schools were created to teach children to read the Bible, to believe scripture without questioning it, and to obey authority figures without questioning them. The early founders of schools were quite clear about this in their writings. The idea that schools might be places for nurturing critical thought, creativity, self-initiative or ability to learn on one’s own — the kinds of skills most needed for success in today’s economy — was the furthest thing from their minds. To them, willfulness was sinfulness, to be drilled or beaten out of children, not encouraged.

When schools were taken over by the state and made compulsory, and directed toward secular ends, the basic structure and methods of schooling remained unchanged. Subsequent attempts at reform have failed because, though they have tinkered some with the structure, they haven’t altered the basic blueprint. The top-down, teach-and-test method, in which learning is motivated by a system of rewards and punishments rather than by curiosity or by any real, felt desire to know, is well designed for indoctrination and obedience training but not much else. It’s no wonder that many of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs and innovators either left school early (like Thomas Edison), or said they hated school and learned despite it, not because of it (like Albert Einstein).

It’s no wonder that, today, even the “best students” (maybe especially them) often report that they are “burned out” by the schooling process. One recent top graduate, explaining to a newspaper reporter why he was postponing college, put it this way:  “I was consumed with doing well and didn’t sleep a lot the last two years. I would have five or six hours of homework each night. The last thing I wanted was more school.”

Be sure to read it all — and then ask yourself why the DoJ wants to force Louisiana’s poorest children to attend the worst of these prisons.

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