The Weekly Standard | Esenberg, Szafir: How Opponents of School Choice in Wisconsin Weaponized the Justice Department

WILL’s President and General Counsel, Rick Esenberg, and Executive Vice President, CJ Szafir, write in The Weekly Standard, on how the ACLU and other opponents of Wisconsin’s school choice program used the Obama Department of Justice to investigate and derail the oldest-in-the-nation program.

An unfortunate hallmark of our hyper-partisan age is the temptation to use the levers of government as a weapon against ideological foes. When one side loses an election, some conclude the next best thing is to cast a specter of misconduct and illegality over the winners or their allies. But the coup de graceis to enlist the nation’s law enforcement agency, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), to investigate, subpoena, and prosecute without just cause.

We saw this happen firsthand in Wisconsin when the Obama DOJ investigated the Wisconsin school choice program, the oldest and one of the largest voucher programs in the country, for alleged violations of federal disability law. In 2011, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker signed the largest expansion of school vouchers in the program’s history. For teachers’ unions and major Democratic party supporters, this was an existential theat. The voucher program, which allows low-income children to attend a private school of their choosing, was popular and successful. Results from a study conducted by a nonpartisan research team at the University of Arkansas showed that students in private-choice schools were more likely to graduate from high school than their peers at Milwaukee Public Schools.

Unable to influence policy in the state capital, opponents of school choice turned to their allies in the Obama administration. On June 7, 2011, attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the taxpayer-funded Disability Rights Wisconsin filed a complaint with the DOJ, asking for an investigation into alleged “systemic discrimination” against students with disabilities by the voucher program and two private schools.

The Justice Department complied, launching what would become a four-year, shadowy probe into the Milwaukee school choice program. Led by Tom Perez, the current Chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and then head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, the probe sought to destroy a program that had long provided a lifeline to poor, mostly minority children.

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