- The Washington Times - Monday, September 26, 2005

Whenever President Bush and other school-choice supporters push vouchers, the teachers’ union starts barking, arguing that publicly financed vouchers will soak up the dollars in the educational trough. During the 2004 presidential campaign, liberals railed relentlessly against the No Child Left Behind Act, falsely claiming it was an unfunded federal mandate that added considerable pressure to state and local budgets. Now, as school districts around the country try to accommodate students displaced by back-to-back hurricanes, liberals are wailing anew.

In legislation making the rounds of Capitol Hill, President Bush is proposing up to $2.6 billion in elementary, secondary and post-secondary relief. The bulk of the money, $1.9 billion, would reimburse school districts that enroll at least 10 hurricane-displaced students this school year. The money could be used for salaries and transportation, as well as counseling and classroom materials, with a per-pupil maximum of $7,500.

Those expenditures have received bipartisan support on the Hill. But here’s the rub with the liberals: The president also wants to provide a $7,500 per-pupil maximum to students enrolled in private schools. The White House made the right call on this one. As Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has pointed out, Hurricane Katrina severely impacted Southeastern Louisiana, which had an above-average number of children enrolled in private schools — 61,000 students in private school compared to 187,000 in public schools in four parishes, or nearly one-third of the student population vs. the national average of 11 percent.

While the Bush proposal calls for treating all K-12 students alike, the liberals want to treat children in private and religious schools as outcasts. Calling this a “precarious time to open a divisive social policy debate about vouchers,” National Education Association President Reg Weaver, cried the same sad song he and his political ilk have been singing all along. “ouchers,” he said, “funnel much-needed resources from public school sytems.” On the Hill, Sen. Ted Kennedy could, perhaps, have drawn a measure of respect had he criticized the other costly New Deal-like initiatives now being pushed by a Republican White House. Instead, Mr. Kennedy — usually a champion of the so-called disadvantaged — posited himself yet again in the anti-school-choice camp. “This is not the time for a partisan political debate on vouchers,” the senator said.

To the contrary, this is the perfect time: An estimated 372,000 students have been displaced by Hurrican Katrina, and the tally for those left school-less because of Rita has yet to come. Many of those students are from families that prefer Catholic, Jewish or other private schools. The Bush legislation would not only accommodate their preferences, but also aid displaced public-school families who, now temporarily relocated, may choose a private school and be compensated. The White House gets it right.

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