Voucher Vultures

Earl Hadley

September 23, 2005

Earl Hadley is education coordinator for the Campaign for America's Future.

Last Friday, President Bush released his plan for helping students and schools recover from the Hurricane Katrina tragedy.  While there are good components, what stands out is the administration’s attempt to use the devastation wrought by Katrina as political cover for pushing school vouchers on the nation.

Of the $2.6 billion in reconstruction funding proposed, nearly a fifth—$488 million—will go to providing vouchers to students.  The conservative spin machine is quick to point out that Louisiana has a higher percentage of private school students than the nation overall.  John Boehner, chair of the House Education Committee, suggests in The Washington Post that since all schools are opening their doors to children,we should support all schools.  Boehner ignores the fact that, as People for the American Way states, it’s primarily public schools assisting displaced students.  And it is public schools, as opposed to private ones, that have the obligation to provide for all students.  Private schools are free to contribute or not. Following Boehner’s logic, the administration and its allies next will say that we should reimburse Wal-Mart for the goods that company donated.

Let’s applaud private schools that assist displaced students, but not subsidize them unless there is no other alternative for students. Instead of creating a new bureaucracy and using taxpayers’ dollars to fund religious schools, how about funneling this money to help rebuild schools in the Gulf region? That’s something the administration failed to address in its plan. 

But the administration is doing more than showing misplaced priorities—it is also being hypocritical.  The secretary of education, for example, has been very hesitant to waive No Child Left Behind accountability rules for schools accepting displaced students. If the Bush administration is seriously concerned about accountability, then how does it explain the $488 million for vouchers to schools that have no accountability standards?  How does it explain why vouchers would be offered to students who didn’t previously attend private or religious schools?  It can’t.

Regardless of your position on vouchers, now is not the time to support the administration’s political opportunism.  The strategy is pretty clear: Tug on the heartstrings about helping all children, and then, once the students are in school, demand that they remain in private/religious institutions so that their education is not disturbed.  At that point—no surprise—the funding for public schools will be siphoned off to fund the vouchers. The New York Times , for example, quotes the president of the National Catholic Educational Association as saying “this gives us a good idea of how this would work, like a national experiment.” Conservatives already forced a voucher program on the District of Columbia, with hopes of eventually expanding such nationally.  Now is not the time to give them a free pass to institute vouchers across the country. 

Congressional leaders on education Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., have already questioned Bush’s motives in proposing vouchers, and the heads of the nation’s teachers unions have rejected this proposal. Even the Republican chair of the Senate Education Committee has responded cautiously to the idea.  But if we don’t take action to reject this wolf in sheep’s clothing, we’ll be on the losing side of the voucher debate for years to come. 

America doesn’t need ideological experiments in the midst of a crisis.  We need students to be placed in school, and investments to be made in rebuilding the Gulf Coast's schools. But the administration has yet to propose the needed investments.  For all of its talk about just wanting to establish continuity for students, the administration, for example, has failed thus far to offer significant assistance to colleges wrecked by Katrina. These institutions are huge employers and provide cultural and educational activities for communities.  Leaving colleges and universities to survive on their own is close to tearing the heart out of rebuilding communities.     

President Bush recently acknowledged that he was ultimately responsible for the federal government’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina. The president is also responsible for the recovery effort. But instead of demonstrating leadership aimed at rebuilding the region, so far all Bush has shown is a willingness to cater to the right’s ideological agenda.