In support of school vouchers for New Orleans children

Posted: Oct 31, 2005 12:05 AM

Alleged foot dragging in aid and rescue efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina led to charges of racism, particularly aimed at the Bush administration. However, it's now two months since this tragedy hit, almost a month and a half since the president addressed the nation regarding his clean-up plans, and little federal action has been taken to help displaced kids get back into school.

Where are these voices of outrage now?

President Bush in his address in New Orleans proposed that federal education assistance be in the form of providing vouchers that families can use to place kids in any school of their choice _ public or private.

This proposal has predictably gotten bogged down in the usual Washington political morass while at least some sizeable portion of the 372,000 kids that were displaced by the hurricane are hanging in limbo.

This is a golden opportunity for the president to step up to the plate and show leadership. Clint Bolick of the Alliance for School Choice has pointed out that the president can get these education vouchers done by executive order.

The estimated price tag to provide a $7,500 voucher for each displaced kid is $2.8 billion. This is a drop in the bucket of the $62 billion that Congress has already appropriated for emergency relief. By a stroke of the pen, the president can eliminate restrictions in place and permit directing these FEMA funds for education. Why doesn't the president act? Now.

The president's approval ratings among blacks, which had tanked well before Katrina, are now about as low as you can get. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of several weeks ago showed Bush registering 2 percent approval among blacks. A Pew Research Center survey showed him at 12 percent.

The majority of blacks poll in favor of school vouchers. This support gets stronger as the focus moves toward younger black voters. In a recent survey of black voters under the age of 35, done by David A. Bositis, and commissioned by the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, 66 percent indicated support for vouchers.

Over half of these young blacks surveyed defined themselves as moderate to conservative. However, their inclination is away from party affiliation and think of themselves as independent.

Blacks have always felt like outsiders.

Politicians, of both parties, have traditionally wooed these black outsiders with promises of government programs, with political goodies.

Young blacks now are saying no thanks. We want freedom.

The same young blacks in this survey showed 80 percent support for private social security accounts.

For blacks, school vouchers are a no brainer. The black community has gotten the message that getting its children educated is the central challenge to moving up the economic ladder.

Recently, Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute and the University of Maryland, provided testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, titled "The Economic Stagnation of the Black Middle Class." Besharov's message: "...the main proximate cause of the lack of economic progress among African Americans is the continuing difference in educational attainment between blacks and whites."

Blacks support any innovative ideas that will open the spectrum of opportunities that will get their children educated. Vouchers are clearly one such important innovation.

When Bush proposed vouchers as the most efficient means to quickly get displaced kids back into school, Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, immediately came out in opposition. "We are not supporting that, and that is a big not. It's a voucher bill."

Note that Weaver did not challenge the premise that vouchers would efficiently get kids into school. His opposition is to choice and giving up power of the public school monopoly.

Why are the same voices that called Bush "racist" for allegedly foot dragging in New Orleans not calling Weaver "racist" for opposing an efficient mechanism for getting displaced black kids into schools?

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is supporting a cumbersome measure that would allow reimbursement of cost to all schools, public or private, but only through the public school apparatus. John Boehner of Ohio and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana have a far better approach, allowing parents to sign up online, through a toll free number, or at school, to get the funds to send their kids wherever they want.

However, it seems to me that the great political opportunity for Bush, with blacks and with the nation, is to show real leadership and cut through all this delay by releasing these funds for vouchers by executive order.