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Democrats have opportunity with Lynch nomination

In the coming weeks the nation will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma, a heroic effort that saw the U.S. Justice Department under a Democratic administration firmly enlist itself in the effort to ensure the civil rights of African Americans. Indeed, the resulting significance of the Justice Department’s commitment to civil rights led to stepped up vigilance in protecting the rights of women, gays and other disadvantaged groups. That being said, it saddens me to say that the current U.S. Justice Department has gone in a different direction on the most important civil rights issue facing us today – the plight of minority children in failing school districts. Senators considering the nomination of Loretta Lynch this week have one more opportunity – maybe one last opportunity – to ensure this situation is remedied. 

For many decades, DOJ demonstrated a laudable commitment to ensuring that minority children receive access to a quality education. Even during the difficult years of enforcing Brown v Board of education and the ensuing school busing challenges, DOJ was a bulwark for the rights of children. Which is why it is so glaring that the Obama administration, led by Eric Holder’s Justice Department, has worked so hard to undermine that legacy by filing lawsuits to stop underprivileged children, many of them minorities, from being able to attend schools of their choice. To my great regret, Mr. Holder spent his tenure using the once revered U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, known for standing up to Bull Connor and George Wallace, to bully parents and threaten education programs that serve as a life line to thousands of low income African-American families. 

{mosads}When I served on the DC City Council, I represented a ward that was 90% African-American.  As a result, all the kids attended segregated schools.  The real question was whether the schools those kids attended served their needs. Far too many of those schools did not work for kids, so I also witnessed the school to prison pipeline firsthand. I attended far too many funerals with 4-foot coffins, the end result stemming from violence and drug wars that were killing our children. These kids found no refuge in unsafe schools with overwhelmed and unprepared teachers. There were no opportunities for those children to achieve and succeed, like the children of the educated elite who attended Washington’s upper crust private schools. That is until the establishment of our charter school movement and the DCOSP.  Through school choice, thousands of kids in places like my ward, had a chance to attend schools that worked for them. As an obvious opponent of educational choice, one of Mr. Holder’s first acts as Attorney General was to seek an end to the DCOSP. Later, in Louisiana, then Wisconsin, he continued his targeted political opposition to school choice programs by using DOJ to challenge these programs in court – even though the programs were serving kids’ needs.

Holder’s DOJ’s intrusion  on the parental school choice rights of parents began on the 50th anniversary of the “March on Washington,” where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech.  Mr. Holder’s U.S. Department of Justice sued the state of Louisiana to effectively shut down the states’ opportunity scholarship program, which allows low-income children from underperforming public schools to attend a quality private school. Referencing the fact that 90% of the kids in the Louisiana program were African-American, Holder’s Justice Department said that the program exacerbated segregation and was in violation of the famous Brown v. Board of Education order, which was designed to desegregate American schools. Sometime later, in the face of near universal and bipartisan outrage, the U.S. Department of Justice backtracked on its attempt to block Louisiana’s program and settled with the state of Louisiana.

Late last year, under Holder’s leadership, the Civil Rights Division launched an open and ongoing investigation into the Wisconsin school choice program, starting with an unsubstantiated complaint alleging that the program discriminated against special needs students. Even as Mr. Holder prepares to depart, his lawyers continue to meddle in the Wisconsin program, spending tax payers money to curb a program that has worked for low income kids for nearly 20 years.

All the while, public school districts across the country have become more segregated – arguably more segregated than when the Brown decision was released in 1954 – and with even more low-income minority children trapped in underperforming and failing public schools. In fact, after Brown, 17 states still had segregated schools and were given court orders to desegregate. One of these states was Missouri. While desegregation orders were given out 60 years ago, St. Louis still is one of the most segregated cities in the country and its schools are just as segregated as the urban area. But St. Louis is not alone. Without question, New York City public schools are the most racially segregated in the country, and it is also the nation’s largest school district. Frankly, if our Justice Department is serious about attacking segregation in K-12 education, wouldn’t it make more sense to sue New York City since New York seems to be the largest example of a segregated system? Or St. Louis, since Missouri’s nexus to Brown is more obvious?

As more and more Democrats and Republicans alike outside of Washington begin to recognize the importance of this issue – and separate themselves from the Washington groupthink on school choice – I am hopeful that Loretta Lynch will take this opportunity to do the same.  In any event, I encourage Senators from both parties to question her closely on the issue.  If she expresses her opposition to parental choice in education, then I hope they will ask her what solutions she advocates to immediately remedy the plight of so many children trapped in bad schools.   

I can only hope that our nation’s next Attorney General refrains from using the Civil Rights Division as an additional tool to fit the politics of the day, but rather as a means to fight for the civil rights issue of our time, ensuring that all children have equal access to a quality education. If not, we all need to fight those efforts and remind DOJ of it’s rich legacy in protecting the civil rights of children; a legacy that has been betrayed in recent years.

Chavous is executive counsel for the American Federation for Children, a former member of the Council of the District of Columbia, and  a former chairman of D.C.’s Education Committee. He is also board chair emeritus for Democrats for Education Reform.


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