U.S. REP. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, popped in on a 10th-grade geography lesson at Freire Charter School in Center City yesterday before delivering a speech that jumped all over the political map.
Cantor, a Virginia Republican, came to Philadelphia to slam federal education-funding policy and to call out U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for a lawsuit the Department of Justice filed last month against the state of Louisiana.
The Justice Department wants to stop the state from using public-school money to pay for private tuition in nearly half of its school districts since they remain under a federal desegregation order.
Cantor called "absurd" the department's claim that the program would impede desegregation in Louisiana.
"The truth is an overwhelming majority of the students who receive the scholarships and benefits from this program are minority children from low-income families," Cantor told Freire students assembled for his speech.
"If the attorney general does not withdraw this suit, then the United States House will act," Cantor said. "We will leave no stone unturned in holding him accountable for this decision."
A Department of Justice spokeswoman responded by saying the agency is not trying to end Louisiana's school-voucher program and instead is seeking information for the "straightforward goal" of ensuring the program complies with "longstanding federal desegregation orders."
Cantor did not take questions from the media after his speech, so it is unclear how any action the House takes would affect Holder, since the U.S. Senate is controlled by Democrats and President Obama appointed him.
Protesters briefly caught Cantor's attention near the school's entrance as they chanted, "Hey hey, ho ho, Eric Cantor's got to go."
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten noted in a statement released late yesterday that Cantor "did not spend one minute" in his speech discussing the Philadelphia School District's funding crisis.
"Are political leaders so out of touch that they can use a school system in crisis as a backdrop to peddle a school privatization scheme?" Weingarten asked.
Cantor's speech framed school choice as "the greatest civil-rights challenge of our time."
He lamented the "hundreds of billions" the federal government has spent since the mid-1960s trying to improve education, saying it has had "little to no effect."
Cantor also predicted that school vouchers "will be a reality for every student in America" within the next 10 years.