Bush Uses Hurricane To Sneak In School Program: Ideology Trumps Needs In Devastated Areas
by Helen Thomas
The Bush administration -- a strong promoter of private and religious schools -- wants to make it easier for school children displaced by Hurricane Katrina to attend private schools by pushing its pet voucher program.
The White House is proposing $1.9 billion in federal aid for students from kindergarten through the 12th grade whose schools were devastated by Katrina.
Under the proposal -- which would have to be approved by Congress -- the government would provide $7,500 to any displaced family that would prefer to send a child to a private school rather than a public school, even if the student attended a public school before the storm.
The administration has used the hurricane as a golden opportunity to push its ideology and antipathy to government, as symbolized by public schools.
Wider use of vouchers to promote greater acceptance of private schools is not the only manifestation of the administration's opportunism in the wake of the hurricane.
By executive order, President George W. Bush has suspended the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act, which mandates that workers on federally funded construction projects must be paid the prevailing wage in the region. The prevailing wage in the Gulf region for reconstruction workers runs about $9 an hour. But federal contractors can now pay less as a result of the president's decision. This is the same president who has never supported an increase in the $5.15 hourly minimum wage.
Officials said the move concerning Davis-Bacon was to "improve efficiency" and to cut red tape during the reconstruction work in the Gulf area.
What red tape? The construction companies affected by the Davis-Bacon rules would have been required to file a report only every three months.
The administration's drive to make private-school vouchers available to student evacuees appeared ideological to Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, who said "it is really a tone-deaf response to the crisis. It is a real grab to get an ideological position across that they haven't been able to achieve under normal circumstances."
The administration has been unsuccessfully trying to convince Congress to approve a voucher program since 2001, though the lawmakers did establish a five-year pilot program in Washington that this year provides taxpayer-funded scholarships to 1,733 low-income students attending private schools.
What is it about the public school system that this president doesn't like? Or is it his patrons on the hardcore religious right who are trying to undermine the indispensable public school system in this country?
It is obviously a back-door move by the administration to enhance federal funding of parochial schools.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the top Democrat on the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said of the administration move: "Instead of reopening ideological battles, we should be focused on reopening schools and getting people the help they need."
Denise Cardinal, spokeswoman for the National Education Association, said that 372,000 students from both public and private schools in the Gulf region have had their lives and studies disrupted as a result of the devastation.
Cardinal added that some 10,000 teachers who taught in Louisiana also have been affected by the disaster. The teachers from New Orleans have not been collecting their pay checks.
"They are trying to get their lives together," said Cardinal. Many have to seek licenses to teach elsewhere.
Meantime, the NEA has requested waivers to exempt the students from the testing rigors of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Schools elsewhere are welcoming displaced students with open arms but they are appealing for exemption from the testing.
Incredibly, the Education Department, headed by Secretary Margaret Spellings, said it would consider the waivers on a "case by case" basis.
"We're hoping common sense will prevail," Cardinal said, noting that the law provides exemptions from testing as a result of natural disasters.
Before Katrina struck, the law was being challenged in court by Texas, Massachusetts and Vermont, which claim that they are not getting enough federal funds to pay for the required testing.
Meantime, we are left with the sad reality that the White House is using the worst storm in U.S. history as an opportunity to push its conservative agenda.
(Helen Thomas can be reached at the e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org).
Helen Thomas, Hearst White House columnist
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