When Sen. Ted Kennedy announced a few weeks ago that he would include private schools among the options in his aid package for thousands of schoolchildren displaced by Hurricane Katrina, it appeared a sea change had occurred in the national discourse: A persistent critic of school choice had acknowledged that in emergency circumstances, we should look to every possible avenue for relief, including private and religious providers.
Soon thereafter, Reps. John Boehner (R., Ohio) and Bobby Jindal (R., La.) introduced legislation in the House to provide educational relief to Katrina children who found haven in public or private schools. But the bill was dealt a serious setback when four Republican members of Congress–Judy Biggert (Ill.); Todd Platts (Pa.); Randy Kuhl (N.Y.); and Bob Inglis (S.C.)–voted in committee, in an otherwise strict party-line vote, to defeat it.
We might call the renegades the four horsemen, except that in the face of crisis, they galloped off in the wrong direction.
The process started auspiciously enough.George W. Bush initially proposed as part of the overall Katrina relief package that children left without schools by the hurricane would receive tuition assistance wherever they managed to find educational refuge. In the Senate, a strong bipartisan consensus emerged to do just that, with Democrat senators such as Mary Landrieu (La.) and Christopher Dodd (Conn.) joining Kennedy in endorsing the inclusion of private schools in the relief package. The bill, though far from perfect, passed unanimously last Thursday.
In the House, committees were told they needed to come up with budget cuts to offset relief spending. The Education Committee did so, coming up with enough savings to fund a comprehensive education relief package. House Democrats did not follow the statesman-like example of their Senate colleagues, and they opposed the bill. But shockingly, the quartet of Republican naysayers managed to torpedo the entire bill in the committee. As a result, the House bill now includes no education relief for Katrina schoolchildren at all.
Why did they do it? One can assume that the Republican renegades have nothing against the Katrina schoolchildren themselves, however Scrooge-like their actions. The more likely explanation is that, like many of their Democrat colleagues, at least three of them–Biggert, Platts, and Kuhl–are doing the bidding of the powerful teachers union, which somewhat confusingly calls itself the National Education Association.
The NEA lobbied militantly against the inclusion of private schools in the relief package. Revealing its own true priorities, the NEA preferred no relief to any schools–including public schools–over aid that included both public and private schools. And the Republican defectors did its bidding.
What is strange is that there is a strong precedent for comprehensive education aid: the GI Bill. When veterans return from service, they receive education aid they can use at public, private, or religious educational institutions. House detractors presumably do not object to the GI Bill–but neither does the NEA, for it doesn’t intrude on its K-12 turf.
If the bill is not revived in the House, scores of public and private schools that are bursting at the seams as a result of their efforts to provide an educational life preserver for Katrina schoolchildren will receive no federal support at all.
There is still a chance that a House leadership—sponsored education relief amendment can be substituted for the committee bill–but only if Speaker Dennis Hastert and acting majority leader Roy Blunt are willing to fight for it. Likewise, the House can reconcile its Katrina aid package with the Senate bill, which includes educational relief.
Perhaps the White House and congressional leadership can persuade the Republican renegades to reclaim their principles, or enough Democrats will cross party lines to do the right thing. If not, countless Katrina children can expect a lump of coal in their Christmas stockings, thanks to the NEA and its congressional minions. That would be a true shame; the displaced children can use all the help they can get.
–Clint Bolick is president and general counsel at the Alliance for School Choice.