Emergency School Vouchers Likely for Katrina Victims

Published November 1, 2005

A month after Hurricane Katrina displaced 372,000 schoolchildren and laid waste to portions of three Gulf Coast states, students headed back to class in one of Louisiana’s hardest-hit districts, Jefferson Parish. But for thousands more, scattered across dozens of states, relief in the form of emergency school vouchers appeared to be the most likely way they would start making the journey back to normalcy.

As this issue of School Reform News went to press, a federal disaster relief package that included one-year emergency school vouchers for displaced families was being debated on Capitol Hill. (See “Hill Beat” column on page 3.) Several Democrats who ordinarily oppose school vouchers, including Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, are sponsors of the emergency measure, giving school choice advocates reason to believe the measure is likely to pass.

“Vouchers aren’t these ideological things. They’re a policy tool,” said Chris Kinnan, director of public affairs at FreedomWorks, an organization headquartered in Washington, DC that fights for smaller government and greater personal freedom. “Independent of the political debate, they closely meet the specific needs of the student–especially at a time like this when the centralized monopoly isn’t operating and kids are scattered across multiple states. It’s hard to conceive of another system that could help these kids out.”

Limited Awareness

At press time, approximately 60,000 Katrina evacuees were being educated in school districts in Texas, and thousands more were spread across Alabama, Georgia, and states as far away as California, Illinois, and Maryland.

Though schools nationwide have joined forces with private companies and individuals to offer help–from raising money for cash donations to providing housing, clothing, and school supplies (see “Homeschoolers, Charters Reach Out to Help Katrina Victims,” page 11)–most of the schools that have absorbed displaced students will at some point need some federal reimbursement.

If dollars freely followed scholars, school choice advocates say, that problem would be mitigated.

Though it’s been 50 years since Milton Friedman first wrote about the idea of using school vouchers to give parents greater control over their children’s education–a concept he modeled after the G.I. Bill was used to further the education of veterans returning home from World War II–it’s only been in the past 15 years that the idea has begun to be put into limited use, generally on the community level. The majority of the public–particularly outside of cities like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and the District of Columbia, where voucher programs exist–still doesn’t seem to have a good idea of what they are or how they work, school choice advocates say.

Silver Lining

But emergency vouchers could be the silver lining in the storm clouds that brought Hurricane Katrina to the Gulf Coast on August 29.

“I think what’s interesting here is not so much the mechanics of vouchers, but the idea behind them, which is, [should] families in need with a particular educational preference for their children have a choice or not?” said Michael Petrilli, vice president of programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a school choice advocacy group based in Virginia.

“Clearly the families affected by Katrina are in need, and before the storm they were making certain choices for their children. After this trauma, we certainly want to send kids to a similar school and culture where there can be some continuity. That argument resonates with people, even those who ordinarily oppose vouchers. We need to do what’s best for kids, and some of that sentiment can translate to the larger debate [about vouchers in general].”

Dire Straits

Educators of all stripes agree that before Katrina practically wiped them out, New Orleans’ schools were greatly in need of reform. Seventy-three of the city’s 126 public schools were failing Louisiana’s educational accountability standards before the storm, and the district was the lowest-performing in the state. Ninety-six percent of the city’s high school students scored below basic in reading on the state Graduate Exit Examination test in 2004, and 94 percent scored below basic in math.

The fact that many New Orleans parents don’t want to send their kids to failing public high schools might be one reason why private school enrollment there has been so high. In the four parishes hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, 33 percent of the students attended private schools, compared with just 11 percent nationwide.

But underperforming public schools, and parents who want to break free from them, can be found nationwide, said Clint Bolick, president of the Arizona-based Alliance for School Choice.

“The New Orleans schools were a disaster long before the hurricane hit, and many other school districts are devastated even though they haven’t had a hurricane,” Bolick said. “This is a great opportunity for the school choice movement, because if we establish the proposition that vouchers are appropriate in emergency situations, then the next step is to show that there is a much broader emergency than Katrina.”

New Incentives

School choice advocates agree that if displaced families get a taste of the empowerment school vouchers provide, it will be politically difficult to take that freedom away once the one-year period President George W. Bush has proposed in his federal aid package ends. Most likely, they say, it would spur a greater push for school vouchers, either on a universal or income-level basis, in more communities and states.

Bolick said, “I think that if [emergency school vouchers are passed] this time, [they] will be a routine part of future emergency relief. I’m also hopeful that when the No Child Left Behind Act is modified, that it will be easier for Congress to add vouchers to the remedies available under that law.”

Kinnan sees further significance in the plan. “Having those vouchers for a couple of years would change the way parents and students and even educators think about them,” Kinnan said. “The impact would be so powerful that if you did it right, [school] systems would be competing to attract these [kids with vouchers]. It’s all about changing the incentive. Once you have that freedom, it would be very difficult to go back to the community control system.

“But from our view, these programs should be administered by state and local governments,” Kinnan added.

Bolick agrees that implementation of school choice creates greater support for the concept. “One of the cardinal rules we’ve discovered is that choice begets choice,” he said. “Once parents are able to choose in any capacity, they don’t want to give that up.”

Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.