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Storm arises over emergency school vouchers

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted January 23, 2006

Viewers of the 2006 Nokia Sugar Bowl witnessed an event that transcended the importance of whether West Virginia or Georgia won. The half-time ceremony featured the awarding of a $75,000 grant from Nokia to the Desire Street Academy, a Christian middle and high school for boys, based in New Orleans. Danny Wuerffel, a Heisman Trophy winner who serves as the school's development director, and several students accepted the award. Situated in the heart of what was the toughest area of New Orleans, students at the Academy, displaced by Hurricane Katrina, were forced to move to Atlanta, then to Florida.

Even greater assistance soon will come to the students at Desire Street Academy and other religious schools which had been displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. President George W. Bush signed the Fiscal 2006 Department of Defense Appropriations Act into law late last year. Included in that enactment was the Hurricane Education Recovery Act, which is to provide federal assistance for public or religious schools having students displaced by the hurricanes. The assistance can be up to $6,000 per student and $7,500 for special-need students.

The ease with which the Defense Appropriations Bills were passed by the House and Senate obscures the twists and turns in the fight to obtain the assistance. Originally, the Senate bill, proposed by Senators Michael B. Enzi (R-WY) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), respectively Chairman and Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, did not address the needs of students in religious and private schools displaced by the hurricanes. Fortunately, the plan advanced by President Bush recognized the need.

The importance of religious and private schools in Louisiana was made clear at a September 22, 2005 hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Education and Early Childhood Development. Sister M. Michaeline Green, O.P., Superintendent of [Catholic] Schools for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, told the Subcommittee:

Louisiana has a unique situation in that one third of all students attend nonpublic schools compared to the national average of 11%. In four of the severely impacted counties (called parishes in LA) around New Orleans, approximately 61,000 students of the 187,000 total student population attend non-public schools from PreK – grades 12. Most of these students come from low to middle income families who are making a great financial sacrifice to send their children to a school of their choice for academic, religious and safety reasons.

Sister Michaeline had a powerful ally in Subcommittee Chairman Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a strong supporter of school choice, who emphasized that a one-year program to allow displaced students to attend a public or private school represented "the fairest approach." A surprise occurred when Senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT), a critic of school vouchers, spoke in favor of providing temporary aid to private schools because it was imperative "to get these kids back on their feet as soon as possible."

The Washington Post published an editorial cautioning against creating "the first national voucher program" while conceding that "pragmatic reasons" might dictate the need to put displaced students in religious schools provided the aid was limited by the number of students served and it applied not longer than one school year.

Louisiana Senators Mary L. Landrieu (D) and David Vitter (R) introduced their own legislation to provide relief to students that would allow public and private and religious schools to receive the assistance. Landrieu, daughter of former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu (later Secretary, Housing and Urban Development in the Carter Administration), who herself attended a Catholic girls' school, is not supportive of a national voucher system. She would later explain her position in support of temporary relief this way: "In an emergency, sometimes you need to change rules and try new things."

Congressional Quarterly reported the next day that the Kennedy-Enzi Bill was to be redrafted to provide aid for private schools. Even temporary aid to religious schools drew the ire of the National Education Association ("NEA"). The Council of American Private Education January 2006 issue of CAPE Outlook credits the team of Enzi, Dodd and Kennedy for having held firm despite "fierce resistance" from organizations such as the NEA. Other key players were Senators Rick Santorum (R-PA), Judd Gregg (R-NH) and John E. Ensign (R-NV), as well as Representative John A. Boehner (R-OH), Chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Representative Bobby Jindal (R-LA).

Students without disability are eligible in the relief package to obtain a grant up to $6,000 to cover the cost of tuition, fees and transportation to attend the accredited school – religious, private or public -- of their choice. An opt-out provision included in the enactment will not require a student to receive religious instruction if a parent objects.

The temporary aid provided by the relief bill continues to enrage Reg Weaver, NEA President, quoted in The New York Sun as labeling the relief bill as "the worst assault on public education in American history."

Others see it quite differently. It would have been wrong for Congress and the Administration to play politics in the wake of a tragedy, forcing students to attend schools – religious or public -- neither they nor their families desired. Before Katrina there was an above-average percentage of students in Louisiana who were receiving an education outside the public school system. Such as the NEA and Reg Weaver wanted to deny students and their families relief that would enable them to continue the education they preferred.

The U.S. Department of Education National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP or the "Nation's Report Card") issued in December 2005 a report, "Student Achievement in Private Schools: Results from NAEP 2000–2005, " examining test scores for students in private schools, specifically concentrating on Catholic, Lutheran and Conservative Christian schools. The report found:

Students at grades 4, 8, and 12 in all categories of private schools had higher average scores in reading, mathematics, science, and writing than their counterparts in public schools. In addition, higher percentages of students in private schools performed at or above Proficient compared to those in public schools.

That finding alone does not indicate poorer students are boosted academically once they leave the public schools. The odds are that they will benefit from a more rigorous curriculum and higher expectations. The Condition of American Education 2002 stated,

"Compared with public schools, private schools required more coursework (in 4-year high school programs) in 1999-2000 in social studies, mathematics, science, foreign language, and computer science … Findings from the NAEP High School Transcript Study of 1998 show that 1998 private high school graduates were more likely than public high school graduates to have completed advanced course in science and mathematics."

The report also noted that the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 had shown

"Even students from low-[socio-economic status] backgrounds attained higher levels [of education] if they had been private school students in 1988. Specifically, 7[%] of students in the lowest SES quartile who had attended an 8th grade public school in 1988 had earned a bachelor's degree by 2000, whereas 24[%] of their private school peers form the lowest SES quartile had done so."

This victory has been followed by a defeat for the forces advocating school choice. The Supreme Court of Florida struck down the State voucher program which enabled students in substandard public schools to transfer to better performing public schools or to obtain scholarships to attend private schools. The Florida Supreme Court in its ruling relied upon a provision in the Florida Constitution, "Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools." Challenges to similar programs failed in Ohio and Wisconsin.

Andrew J. Coulson, Director of the Cato Institute Center for Educational Freedom, noted in a recent Wall Street Journal commentary that Florida has "an on-time graduation rate of just 57%, placing it third from last nationally. Its composite SAT score is the fourth lowest among the states." Is it surprising that Clint Bolick, Alliance for School Choice President, argued the ruling placed Florida families seeking better educational options for their children in an "educational straitjacket[?]"

Another critic of the Florida Supreme Court decision was Jeanne Allen, Center for Education Reform President, who argued the decision is an "anomaly" because "The U.S. Supreme Court has held such choice programs constitutional and other states will continue to pursue choice efforts."

John Holmes, Director of Government Affairs, Association of Christian Schools International, commented before the Florida Supreme Court judgment that relief assistance for displaced students who attend religious schools represents a "breakthrough" even if it does not lead to a large-scale federal voucher program. "There's an ongoing relationship between what the Federal Government does and what the states choose to do."

Holmes predicted that at the very least the relief aid may encourage more states to consider voucher programs slated at poor children. One must hope that time will prove Holmes' optimism correct inasmuch as Bolick argues, "Given that parental choice is triggered only when kids are in a failing public school, this ruling turns the guarantee of high-quality schools on its head."

Americans increasingly are accepting the fact that there are positive, successful alternatives to the public schools which can help raise students from low-income backgrounds to better lots in life. The decision by Congress to provide aid to students who had been attending private schools reflects that increased awareness. It remains to be seen how far-reaching the consequences will be, given the wake of the Florida ruling. For those students who were displaced it is good that they can continue to obtain the education that best serves them.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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