Those familiar with my life story understand my emotional approach to educational opportunity — particularly where the story line ends in opportunity denied.
Simply put, I got lucky at a tender age. Enough athletic and academic prowess, in addition to scholarship aid, gave me the opportunity to attend excellent schools. These institutions set me on a successful path; each afforded me unlimited opportunities and important relationships that I have taken advantage of throughout my life. I remain forever grateful to everyone who took the time to invest in me.
This experience in turn has spurred me to support just about any initiative that removes kids from educational dysfunction — environments that are express tickets to under-achievement, under-advancement, and under-employment.
It's why my administration fought so hard to pass the first public charter schools bill in Maryland. (Not surprisingly, over the vehement objection of the General Assembly's most progressive members and the state teachers union.) It's why I got so frustrated and dispirited with Baltimore City's determined (and ultimately successful) effort to stop then-state Superintendent Nancy Grasmick from throwing a life preserver to 11 of the country's most dysfunctional schools in 2006. (Seems the chance to rescue kids sentenced to educational dysfunction proved a bit too politically inconvenient for then-Mayor Martin O'Malley and the Baltimore City teachers union.) It's why I have been so critical of the president's repeated efforts to de-fund private-school vouchers for those mostly African-American kids sentenced to the worst of D.C.'s public schools. (Recall that the president's daughters attend the prestigious, $40,000-plus per year Sidwell Friends School.) And it's why all of us should be up in arms regarding Attorney General Eric Holder and the U.S. Justice Department's latest attack on public school choice in Louisiana.
For those of your members predisposed to support the Obama Administration in their selectively aggressive effort to transform civil rights in America, please try the following facts on for size:
In 2010, Louisiana's innovative Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Louisiana legislature enacted the "Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence" bill. Similar to other school choice programs around the country, the Louisiana initiative provides taxpayer funded vouchers to poor children (families must be at or below 250 percent of poverty) who would otherwise be forced to attend an underperforming public school.
Unfortunately, Louisiana's Supreme Court struck down the law this spring. Seems the court found the program's funding stream to be constitutionally problematic. Yet the resourceful Mr. Jindal found a separate pool of dollars ($40-million worth) to pay for this year's vouchers.
Enter the Obama Justice Department with a novel spin: The voucher program violates pre-existing desegregation orders operating in 34 Louisiana school districts because use of the vouchers changes the racial composition of the failing public schools. In laymen's terms, providing 8,000 mostly African-American school children private school vouchers "frustrates and impedes the desegregation process." FYI: DOJ's theory also puts at risk the future of Louisiana's public charter schools for similar reasons.
That this Justice Department is slow to recognize positive societal change is a matter of fact. (See my column of July 14 concerning the Obama Administration's dismissive reaction to the Supreme Court's striking down of federal pre-clearance voting changes in a number of southern states.)
But this one is a not a close call. In a response identical to Washington, D.C.'s experiment with vouchers, African-American parents and grandparents of those fortunate enough to be chosen for the program are steadfast in their support; these families appreciate an opportunity when they see one. Also supportive are Governor Jindal, House Speaker John Boehner, and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott — a South Carolina Republican and an African American who knows a thing or two about real educational discrimination. They and others (mostly Republicans) have stepped forward on behalf of the kids. Good for them, but not enough to save the program from Eric Holder's Justice Department.
Which brings us to the purpose of this letter.
The NAACP has always been in the vanguard of the fight for equal economic and educational opportunity. But today, far too many poor black children are stuck in underperforming public schools —and far too many of these kids end up in our criminal justice system. Indeed, over-representation of black youth within our juvenile correctional system has been a top issue for you since the 1980s. Simply put, this vulnerable population is denied a chance to have their ticket into the middle class punched by a society (and economy) that demands educational literacy in an increasingly high tech world.
Fortunately, the NAACP retains the public standing to make a difference; your opinion still counts where civil rights are at issue. So, here's hoping the most successful civil rights organization in history will take a very public stand on behalf of a couple thousand African-American school children in the deep south. These kids deserve a chance the children of Baltimore were denied not so long ago.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" — a book about national politics. His email is email@example.com.
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