On Thurs., Oct. 20, a bipartisan group of US Senators (Kennedy, Enzi, Alexander & Dodd) introduced legislation to provide federal aid to schools around the nation that have taken in thousands of k-12 students displaced Hurricane Katrina. The legislation (s1904) is the product of several weeks of intensive negotiations among the senators and with representatives of the stakeholder schools on the ground – including Nathan Diament, UOJCA public policy director, who issued the following statement in response to critics of the proposal:
In recognition that the effects of Katrina were broad and unprecedented, S1904 proposes unprecedented relief – $6000 per displaced child to every school that has taken in these children – including nonpublic (whether secular or parochial) schools. The inclusion of the nonpublic schools in the aid program is founded upon the simple recognition that just as the hurricane didn’t discriminate among the families it displaced, neither should the federal relief response.
Extremist critics – including the ACLU, Nat’l Education Assn. and Americans for Separation of Church & State – of any kind of federal aid to nonpublic schools no matter the circumstance denounced the proposal as a “voucher” plan and “unconstitutional.” It is critical to recognize both these charges – intended to be politically incendiary – are simply wrong; that shouting “voucher” and “unconstitutional” doesn’t make it so.
First, the relief proposal is not a “voucher” plan. The key element of a “school voucher” plan is to apply market forces to k-12 schools – to place them in competition with one another for the students and the funding they bring with them via the voucher. Thus, the schools are forced to improve or, if they fail to attract students, lose funding and close. The relief proposal in the Enzi-Kennedy bill does not place schools in competition with one another. The public schools that have taken in Katrina-displaced students will receive $6000 per student whether the Jewish, Catholic or secular private schools receive reimbursements or not. To say the nonpublic schools ought not receive the same support for undertaking the same compassionate response to the disaster is nothing but discriminatory. Second, the relief proposal is constitutional. Under governing Supreme Court precedents, government aid delivered indirectly to parochial schools due to the personal choices of parents is constitutional (Zelman v. Simmons Harris). So too, government aid delivered directly to parochial schools as part of a broader aid program for secular purposes on the basis of religion-neutral criteria is constitutional. (Agostini v Felton, Mitchell v. Helms). While the UOJCA retains concerns over some provisions of s1904 and how they might impede the pragmatic implementation of this relief program, we reject the incendiary rhetoric of the extremist enemies of the nonpublic school community and their calls for discrimination in disaster relief.