Politics & Policy

Vouch For The Kids

Educating New Orleans--and Ted Kennedy,

The desire to help the people of the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast has been abundant, as private citizens, businesses, and Congress sent much-needed money, supplies, shelter, and services. It’s important to remember that Katrina victims need more than cash–and Americans and governments at all levels have reached out to help.

And they might get even more help–constructive help–despite Ted “don’t teach a child to fish” Kennedy.

Heaven forbid a kid gets a school voucher to attend a private school; even a kid who can’t go back to the private school his parents sacrificed to send him to; even a kid who can’t go back to a public school because the building was leveled by Katrina’s fury.

As part of a larger education package, in mid-September the White House proposed $488 million for private-school tuition. If a family preferred to send their child to a private school instead of a public school, the government would subsidize the alternative. “Parents may choose to send children to private schools. They may not. But this is their choice,” explained Susan Aspey, an Education Department spokeswoman. Moreover, in cases where private schools–as some in Texas did, for instance–took in Katrina victims, the schools will be reimbursed. This seems simply fair.

Oh, but, the horror of it all! Children going to private schools with public money. Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy, ranking Democrat on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, blasted the White House proposal. “Instead of reopening ideological battles, we should be focused on reopening schools and getting people the help that they need.”

But the vouchers bill is an emergency measure that makes sense. Looking ahead, it’s an investment worth making–and a debate on school choice long overdue.

Overall, some studies have shown higher achievement in those attending school under a voucher program, and surveys have found parents at least feel their children are getting a better education. There’s no good reason New Orleans shouldn’t be the next experiment. In New Orleans, before Katrina, about 61,000 children were enrolled in private schools. It was about one quarter of the 248,000 students attending school in the broader area.

Laughably though, Kennedy has insisted that “we need to focus on rebuilding the public school systems which are the cornerstone of the Gulf Coast communities and economies.” Any cornerstone would be missing a fundamental element there without a nod to families that were embracing education there, public or private.

And private schools are to be encouraged in a reconstructed New Orleans. Not only because they were the choice of so many families pre-Katrina, but because a little competition to the public schools there would be a beautiful thing, and force a mess of a public-school system into reform. A reconstituted public system there with the same people, with the same philosophy would be a recipe for future disaster.

Before Katrina hit, 73 of New Orleans’s more than 120 schools were “failing,” according to state standards. In one 2004 survey, 96 percent of high-school-age students were below average in English and 94 percent were in math.

It’s not just in the classroom that’s a wreck. In a state-mandate audit of the school system’s payroll records (pre-Katrina), one of the investigators announced: “I’m a CPA doing this 20 years. This is the absolute worst I’ve ever seen. Anyone can bend any rule around here.”

If an investment is going to be made in rebuilding, that’s not the system that should be rebuilt–do it right this time. And, again, maybe a little competition is the ticket to ride to educational success.

Faced with the realities on the ground in New Orleans, both pre- and post-Katrina, school choice now–and, if it works, later–may just be the silver lining in the storm.

Ted Kennedy, not unlike his approach to the John Roberts Supreme Court hearings, is the one playing politics with Katrina, in his opposition to giving kids a chance at choice. He’s shown some signs of a willingness to bend, though with unnecessary restrictions. This one should be a no-brainer.

And we can make it easy: Sen. Kennedy, like his peers in both parties, enjoys using catchy sound bites to get his message across. Okay, I can play along: Support school vouchers. Do it for the children, Ted. Leave no child behind. Whatever slogan works for you.

Just vouch for them.

(c) 2005, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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