Commentary

No Disaster Big Enough to Permit School Choice

This article appeared on FOXNews.com on October 12, 2005.
Katrina was one of the most devastating hurricanes to ever strike the United States. Federal, state, and local governments’ responses to it, sadly, were almost as calamitous. For some politicians, though, there has never been a disaster big enough to convince them to loosen government’s grip on the people.

Just take a look at education: Whether it is parents from hurricane-ravaged Louisiana trying to get their children’s education back on track, or just parents faced with hopeless public schools, government has consistently stood in the way of families trying to help themselves.

Recently, as part of its disaster relief package, the Bush administration outlined a plan to provide federal educational relief to the families whose lives were destroyed by Katrina. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the administration is “proposing up to $2.6 billion in funding for elementary, secondary and post secondary relief” including “up to $488 million to compensate families for the costs associated with attending private schools.” That last part translates into federal school vouchers.

Without question, there are excellent grounds to oppose Bush’s plan, including the vouchers. Perhaps the most compelling one is that the Constitution grants the federal government no specific, enumerated, power—the only kind it may legitimately exercise—over either education or disaster relief, and if the government has proven one thing in the aftermath of Katrina, it is its complete inability to handle anything it was not specifically designed to confront.

This, however, is not even close to the objections to Bush’s plan voiced by most of its opponents. They are happy to involve the federal government in both disaster relief and education. What they object to is any proposal that might give victims even a little educational freedom.

Sen. Edward Kennedy demonstrated this in a press release late last month. He said that although he applauded the administration’s relief efforts, he was “extremely disappointed that [Bush] has proposed providing this relief using such a politically-charged approach. This is not the time for a partisan political debate on vouchers.”

That said, pressed to not completely ignore the desires of the roughly one-third of parents in hard-hit southeastern Louisiana who had sent their kids to private schools before Katrina, Kennedy is reportedly preparing to offer them his own, big-government brand of assistance: a convoluted proposal to dispense through public schools all aid for displaced students attending private and religious schools. According to a recent report in Congressional Quarterly, Kennedy’s plan would route all relief funds for students in private schools through local public school districts, which would then supply private schools with books, computers and teachers, as well as oversee all expenditures.

In addition, all instruction would have to be taught on a non-ideological and non-sectarian basis.

Details of this proposal are still being worked out, so nothing is set in stone. But from what we have so far, it seems Kennedy’s concept of compassion is either to push thousands of Katrina’s youngest victims into public schools, or to push public schools under private school roofs.

Of course, government compassion ending when politicians and special interests might lose control is nothing new—education has proven it for decades. Kennedy, countless other politicians at every level of government, and special interest groups ranging from teachers unions to school board associations, have long preferred to trap students in disastrous public schools rather than give parents choice. Apparently, they aren’t about to let some natural disaster change that.

Despite their objections, none of those who feed from the government trough can change the fact that the private sector has always been far more reliable than government, whether in education or disaster relief. Indeed, much as Wal-Mart provided water and filled prescriptions well before FEMA arrived in the Gulf Coast, private schools all over America, often at their own expense, took in refugee students before hearing a peep from Washington. Even the prestigious Phillips Academy in Massachusetts enrolled 19 displaced students according to Education Week, five of whom had attended public schools before the catastrophe.

For politicians like Ted Kennedy, though, none of that matters. There will never be enough proof either of government failure or private sector success to justify getting government out of the way and letting parents take control of their children’s education.

Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.