One of President Bush’s last acts of 2005 was to sign a $1.6 billion education package for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. It was a victory not only for Gulf Coast schools and students affected by the storm but for the principle that education funding should follow students, treating public and private schools equally.
The purpose of the emergency Katrina legislation was to speed the reopening of schools in the Gulf Coast and—in the meantime—to help pay for schooling displaced students during this school year.
These measures probably sound uncontroversial. And they should. After all, what politician would oppose legislation that assists the 372,000 students who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina? But the politics of education turned this crucial hurricane relief package into a proxy war over parental choice in education.
Even while the French Quarter was still under water, the teachers unions and other public school interest groups were gearing up to fight legislation that would help displaced students enroll in private schools, even if only for a temporary period. For three months, the public school unions and their allies worked around the clock pressuring Congress to exclude private schools from any aid package.
But they still lost. The final legislation that President Bush signed into law does include private schools. Specifically, it allows the Gulf Coast states to award funds for reopening to private schools that were destroyed by the hurricane. It also allows all schools—public and private—to be reimbursed for the costs of enrolling students who were displaced by Katrina. Because of this measure, the public school interest groups dubbed the package a “school voucher” program.
Since the bill passed last month, its opponents’ claims have bordered on hysterical. National Education Association President Reg Weaver described the package as part of the “worst assault on public education in American history.” Similarly, Ralph Neas of People for the American Way lamented that these “private school vouchers” will undermine the promise of a quality public education in America, “a cornerstone of our democracy.”
This isn’t the first time that such charges have been raised. These and other special interest groups have opposed every proposal to allow parents to choose between public and private schools, warning that this freedom would somehow be the end of public education in America.
While these charges have always been dubious, they are absurd when levied against the hurricane relief package. The program for victims of Katrina is temporary, concluding at the end of the 2005-06 school year. Moreover, all of the program’s funding is new federal money—not a dollar of existing public school spending will be diverted to private schools as a result of the Katrina package.
Yet the National Education Association and its allies do have reason to worry. While only a hurricane relief package, this new law marks an important victory for the principles that funding should follow students and that public and private schools should be treated equally. With their shrill response to these commonsense ideas, opposition groups raised the stakes, exposing the hollowness of their constant anti-choice alarmism.
The school choice programs that these groups are fighting—such as charter schools and school vouchers—have swept the nation. In 2005 alone, 10 new school choice laws were enacted in six states. In all, a record 130,000 children are expected to participate in publicly-funded private school choice programs next fall. More than one million children are currently enrolled in charter schools, which now number 3,000.
This new year will likely bring new victories for school choice—and new defeats for the teachers unions. With 38 states considering school voucher programs last year, expect a renewed push for choice in this year’s legislative sessions. For example, Democrats in New Jersey are joining grassroots supporters in calling for a school choice program for inner-city children.
In the wake of the historic passage of the Katrina education package, Congress could also become an important battleground in the struggle to enact parent-centered education reforms. The federal government now spends more than $66 billion on K-12 education per year—more than $1,400 per public school student.
If Congress follows the precedent set in the battle over Hurricane Katrina funding, future reforms could give more parents the opportunity to choose their children’s schools. How will the NEA rhetorically outdo itself then, after calling this pro-parent relief “the worst assault on public education in American history”?