Politics & Policy

Vouching For Children

Grinches are an obstacle to constructive education aid.

The last few weeks have demonstrated like never before who truly puts ideology above children. Many who purport to value the needs of children are now playing the role of the educational Grinch.

When Hurricane Katrina left 372,000 without schools, President Bush responded with a plea to Congress to provide educational aid to every displaced child, regardless of where they found refuge–in public, private, or religious schools. Louisiana’s Democratic senator Mary Landrieu and her Republican counterpart David Vitter immediately followed suit with an across-the-board relief bill.

But soon, groups like the National Education Association and the National School Boards Association expressed outrage. They strongly objected to public funds being channeled to private schools in order to accommodate displaced children.

The handmaidens in Congress quickly followed suit, saying that now is not the time for a debate over vouchers. Senator Ted Kennedy proposed a bill that would provide aid only to public schools–and explicitly not private schools–that have taken in displaced children. Kennedy has been joined inexplicably by Wyoming’s Republican senator Michael Enzi.

Now it appears Kennedy and Enzi are backing off somewhat, but they still only want to allow aid to go to private-school students after being channeled through public schools. If it is not defeated, this measure will add yet another unnecessary layer of regulation to a relief effort that has already been strangled by red tape.

Unlike Kennedy, the hurricane did not discriminate between children attending public and private schools. Owing to the abysmal condition of New Orleans public schools, roughly one-third of the schoolchildren in the most ravaged parts of Louisiana already were attending private schools. Many of their families, like so many others, lost everything in the flood.

The scores of private and religious schools around the nation that have opened their doors to displaced schoolchildren deserve prompt and equal compensation. Some Catholic schools in Houston are reportedly operating double shifts to accommodate children from Louisiana and Mississippi. But while public schools that are extending a helping hand can expect reimbursement, private and religious schools may not be so fortunate–not, at least, if Kennedy and his fellow sponsors have their way.

The message is as perverse as it is blatantly discriminatory. A person who is drowning doesn’t care at all if the person throwing a lifeline is wearing a clerical collar. Likewise, whether an entity extending assistance to victims of a natural catastrophe happens to be a neighboring government or the Salvation Army, or a religious school, the response should be the same: thanks, encouragement, and support.

Those who oppose individual choice in the use of federal school funds often cloak themselves in the rhetoric of separation of church and state. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that when such choices are entrusted to free individuals, they do not constitute the establishment of a religion. To the contrary, the Supreme Court has charted a course of non-discrimination against religious organizations, which the Kennedy plan blatantly violates.

It is not the Bush administration that has raised ideological issues in the context of disaster relief. Its policy is relief for all children, everywhere. Kennedy and his allies seek to substitute a different standard: aid for only those children who do not find relief from private and religious schools. The burden of justification falls upon those who support such discrimination.

In Kennedy’s case, the explanation is simple: he is in the grip of teachers’ unions, who militantly oppose the freedom of parents to choose to spend public funds in private schools. Even in the most dire of circumstances, he can’t seem to shake his addiction to special-interest pressures. He’s obsessing over where Katrina victims will go to school, while the victims themselves are busy worrying about whether they will get to school at all.

The situation is especially poignant for impoverished New Orleanian children, whose public schools were already devastated by corruption and mismanagement long before the hurricane arrived. Many low-income families had scraped together enough money to pay private school tuition, but many more were unable to do so. The conditions were so bad that earlier this year, the heavily Democratic Louisiana House of Representatives voted to establish a voucher plan for New Orleans schools (though the bill stalled in the state Senate).

Now, if there is a silver lining to this horrible tragedy, it is that the children displaced by Katrina might yet find a brighter educational future with the introduction of school choice. This is much less likely, however, if Kennedy has his way.

Kennedy’s own children spent precious little time in public schools growing up. It is a shame that the senator, so proficient in the art of noblesse oblige, would deny other families the opportunity to be able to say the same.

Clint Bolick is president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice.

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