With billions of dollars pouring into the Gulf Coast, you might expect that the $488 million in federal money designed to help displaced families pay for private-school tuition would elicit no more than a perfunctory nod. If so, you haven't been following the contentious world of education policy, where any proposal to help children that doesn't involve pumping more money into the public-school system is viewed as heresy by teachers' unions and others with a vested interest in the status quo.
The trouble started when the Bush administration unveiled a $2 billion emergency education package for K-12 public and private schools that have welcomed displaced students. The National Education Association wasted no time assailing the measure. "We should be focusing our efforts on meeting the needs of these students, not opening up a debate on vouchers," complained NEA president Reg Weaver. "Vouchers do nothing to solve the problems created by Hurricane Katrina. Vouchers are a flawed and divisive approach that undermines public education."
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., echoed those sentiments. "This is not the time for a partisan political debate on vouchers," he said. Displaced families "need real relief, not ideological battles."
He's right. Now isn't the time for ideological battles. Now is the time for Sen. Kennedy and other members of Congress to support the administration's proposal to provide direct emergency education aid to families, regardless of whether their children have found temporary refuge in public, private or charter schools. As these desperate parents scramble to find good spots in good schools for their kids, it's unconscionable not to give parents options beyond public schools.
Opponents should realize that not only is the administration's proposal not an effort to "undermine public education," it's not even an education policy proposal. It's a disaster relief package. It's part of the larger effort to help hurricane victims make their broken lives whole again.
If we want to help these families rebuild a normal life, we must see that none of the estimated 372,000 displaced students loses ground in school as a result of this disaster. A chance to attend a private school is a chance to take a big step-up in the quality of education for many of those in New Orleans' public schools. (On the American Legislative Exchange Council's latest report on academic achievement, Louisiana ranks 48th out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.) For the third of New Orleans students who already attended private schools, it's a chance to keep even.
Some mechanism for allowing parents to opt out of public schools may become a practical necessity in some areas, where school systems are being asked to absorb hundreds of students from the stricken area.
For these and other reasons, Sen. Kennedy and the NEA can rest assured that this emergency relief package will not "undermine public education." First, it's funded entirely with new federal money, meaning that public schools won't lose a dollar in current funding. Second, the program would be a one-time deal for affected students for the 2005-06 school year. The public education bureaucracy's monopolistic grip on taxpayer funding for education almost certainly will be restored by next fall.
Children displaced by Hurricane Katrina must overcome many challenges in the years ahead. In many cases, everything they have known has been swept away.
Helping these children get back to school in top-notch classrooms is an important step toward recovery. Delaying this process out of loyalty to ideology and special-interest groups is simply indefensible.
Dan Lips is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.
First appeared in the Houston Chronicle