A Katrina voucher compromise

October 26, 2005|By MICHAEL DANNENBERG

"Remember Max Cleland" are three words that should haunt Democrats who want to oppose President Bush's new school voucher plan for children displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Cleland, a triple amputee from his service in the Vietnam War, was Georgia's junior U.S. senator until defeated for re-election in 2002 amid charges of weakness on national security.

Those charges stemmed from his opposition to Mr. Bush's response to 9/11: creation of a Department of Homeland Security free from civil service union rules. Mr. Cleland stood with the unions against Mr. Bush.

In response to Katrina, Mr. Bush has proposed up to $7,500 private school vouchers for displaced children - an idea that the teachers unions hate as much as the unions hated Mr. Bush's Homeland Security Department proposal.

The Bush school voucher initiative has Democrats in a political bind. Either they say no to their teachers union allies and embrace vouchers or they stick with the unions and risk being punished at the polls as insensitive to the needs of more than 300,000 displaced children, many of whom are now desperately poor.

But there is a way out of the voucher vise for moderate Republicans and nonideological Democrats who want to help displaced Katrina kids attending private and public schools while still rejecting Mr. Bush's plan. To do it, the entire public education community has to support "portable, in-kind education aid" for the Katrina children in private and public schools.

Remember Green Stamps? Thirty years ago, families earned them at the supermarket. Think of portable, in-kind education aid as "school stamps" that can be exchanged for government-approved education items such as books, desks, computers and mobile classrooms. Public and private schools would be able to exchange those stamps for tangible education items that they could choose from a state-approved list. The items would be leased from and distributed by the state without charge.

School districts and private schools with as few as 10 Katrina children would be eligible, and all items would have to be secular, neutral and nonsectarian in nature.

This type of delivery mechanism, similar to one used in a small federal education block grant program known as Title V, is a hassle for private school educators who would rather receive cash to offset costs associated with unexpected Katrina children.

But providing school stamps or their equivalent is the only way the government can be reasonably assured that taxpayer dollars intended to pay for the education of Katrina children are not wasted on administrative expenses for which no one is publicly accountable or, worse, on corruption.

There are two main problems with Mr. Bush's Katrina school voucher proposal.

First, it doesn't limit use of public money to books, desks or school uniforms. It pays for anything at a public or private school's discretion, including teaching religion.

Second, it assumes that Katrina parents exercised genuine school choice when, in fact, they did not because in a moment of crisis they placed their children in whatever schools they could. It's naive to believe that significant numbers of displaced Katrina children will, or even should, be moved again whenever one-year-only voucher money becomes available.

Portable, in-kind education aid avoids excessive entanglement with religious institutions, maintains public accountability over taxpayer dollars and helps the Katrina children. Mr. Bush's proposed short-term voucher plan fails to promote free-market competition and risks direct support of religious instruction.

If adopted, portable, in-kind education aid could be a model for school voucher compromises.

Before Katrina, the unions had enough moderate Republican and Democratic votes to defeat a federal school voucher program. But Katrina changed the voucher vote count, and those opposed ideologically to vouchers must now change as well.

The teachers unions and ideologues on the left still won't want to see taxpayer dollars go to private schools, even derivatively. But they should accept a portable, in-kind school aid compromise because in Katrina's wake, they no longer appear to have the votes to stop a voucher program, absent a viable alternative.

Conditions should be placed on the proffered school stamps alternative, including prohibiting private schools that want to participate from discriminating against children according to their race, religion, English proficiency or disability. But something should be offered to displaced Katrina children attending private schools. In politics, at a time of crisis, something almost always beats nothing.

Public and private schools have filled a desperate void in the Katrina relief effort. Many schools that opened their doors to displaced Katrina children have increased costs ranging from a need for more desks to increased mental health services. The federal government should help pay the bills, but not in a way that exploits the tragedy of Katrina to further an ideological agenda.

Now more than ever, the American people want compassion and competence from their government.

Michael Dannenberg, the New America Foundation's director of education policy, was senior education counsel to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

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