Among its other devastating effects, Hurricane Katrina ripped 372,000 children in Gulf Coast states from the public, private, and parochial schools they were attending. The debate on Capitol Hill over how the federal government ought to help restore schooling quickly for those displaced students (and presumably for the smaller numbers uprooted by Hurricane Rita) exposed how far some Big Education interest groups and their political friends will go to oppose anything they can label a school voucher.
In proposing almost $2 billion in education-related relief, President George W. Bush said the assistance should go to help children get in whatever type of school their families can find and prefer, whether that be a public, charter, private, or parochial school. His plan would reserve up to $488 million to help families pay private school tuition.
His proposal simply reflected the reality of where children had been in school and where they were finding refuge. In the four Louisiana parishes struck hardest by Katrina, 32 percent of the 187,000 K-12 children had been attending private schools. (Nationally, private schools enroll 11 percent of all K-12 pupils.) In addition, disaster relief officials said many families were finding private schools for their children in their newly adopted communities.
The National Education Association, the 2.7 million-member teacher union, wasted no time condemning the idea of any money going anywhere except to shore up the public education system. NEA President Reg Weaver said the most urgent need is “to restore a sense of normalcy” to displaced students.
Adamantly Opposes Vouchers
“Vouchers do nothing to solve the problems created by Hurricane Katrina,” Weaver said in a statement released on September 16. “Vouchers are a flawed and divisive approach that undermines public education. … Vouchers don’t repair or rebuild neighborhood schools that have been devastated by this storm or provide traumatized children with access to comprehensive services they and their families need. We need to look at real, long-term solutions, not risky band-aid fixes that won’t do anything to help these kids find the normalcy they’ll need to help them heal.”
According to an NEA statement released September 21, the union gave $500,000 in direct aid to displaced students, teachers, and school employees.
Other lobbying groups such as People for the American Way and the American Association of University Women chimed in with similar anti-voucher statements.
Opponent Changed Mind
What Weaver and his allies overlooked is that for a large percentage of displaced students, “normalcy” means attending a private school. In a September 19 news release, Clint Bolick, president and general counsel for the Arizona-based Alliance for School Choice, blasted the idea of omitting thousands of private and religious school students from disaster relief as “blatant and outrageous discrimination.”
Those arguments appeared to make a difference. Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate Education Committee, who had said he was “extremely disappointed” the Bush administration had “proposed providing this relief using such a politically charged approach” as vouchers for private school students, changed his mind. On October 4, Kennedy introduced a proposal to give $3,750 per semester to each displaced student currently being educated in a religious or private school.
Prominent Dems Support Plan
“The effect of excluding private school students from Katrina relief would be to force thousands of families who have struggled to afford private school tuition to either pay it a second time or to send their children to overcrowded and often poorly performing public schools in their adopted communities,” Bolick said. “These families have lost so much already. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice their children’s education.”
At press time, Congress had not enacted a final version of a relief package, but there were indications the NEA could suffer a setback in its effort to keep all education relief within the government system.
At a September 23 hearing, two influential Democrat senators–Connecticut’s Christopher J. Dodd and Louisiana’s Mary L. Landrieu–expressed qualified support for awarding emergency aid to private schools that accept hurricane victims. Congressional Quarterly quoted Dodd saying that even though he has opposed vouchers, “In my view, we’ve got to accommodate this in a way that makes sense.”
Head Start Reform Passes
In other news, a major development came September 22 when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill intended to reform Head Start, the federal government’s early childhood education program, by providing more protections against financial mismanagement while strengthening state and local communities’ roles.
The measure will likely spark church/state controversy when it reaches the Senate. Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA) won approval in the House for an amendment allowing religious organizations serving as Head Start providers to continue taking religion into account in their hiring practices.
“Now, more than ever before, we are seeing firsthand the good work these groups are doing in my region of the country,” Boustany said in a news release. “In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, faith-based organizations were among the first to reach out a hand in service to those impacted by the disaster. It is critical that faith-based organizations that are willing to serve their communities by participating in federal programs are not forced to give up who they are [in order] to participate.”
Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia.