Vouchers for New Orleans

There is a second rescue urgently needed in the terrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and one that is long overdue: saving New Orleans school kids from their broken public-school system. The tragedy of the storm provides America with a golden opportunity, and the answer lies in the tens of billions of dollars of federal emergency spending. Let’s create emergency school-choice vouchers for the children displaced by Katrina.

The New Orleans public-school system has been failing its kids for years. Fully 73 of its more than 120 schools are considered to be “failing” according to the state’s educational accountability standards. On one 2004 measure, the GEE test of high schoolers, 96 percent of Orleans Parish students were below basic on English and 94 percent were below basic in math. That is an appalling performance; these kids do not stand a chance in a global, information-age economy. Not surprisingly, there is no local leadership and the system has had eight different school superintendents in the past seven years.

The fiscal situation is just as bad. Millions have been stolen over the past decade. An August 2005 federal audit determined that $69 million in Title I funds weren’t properly accounted for and that further grants are “high risk.” Because of multiple ongoing fraud investigations, the Federal Bureau of Investigation actually has an operations field office in the New Orleans school-district headquarters.

In fact, the New Orleans school system doesn’t even know how many employees it actually has on payroll, just rough estimates of between 7,000 and 8,000 people. That’s one reason, in June of this year, the state of Louisiana forced the system to accept oversight from the New York investigative accounting firm Alvarez & Marsal. Last month, before the storm, Alvarez & Marsal disclosed that the rate of payroll errors is around 20 percent, and one of the investigators told the New Orleans Times Picayune, “I’m a CPA doing this 20 years. This is the absolute worst I’ve ever seen. Anyone can bend any rule around here.”

Given this situation, New Orleans public-school administrators should not be trusted with a penny of federal educational aid. If they have been this irresponsible and abusive before Katrina, imagine the official looting that will occur with federal emergency aid money. Congress should not let that happen with our tax dollars.

As part of the overall aid plan, Congress is contemplating billions in educational assistance. With so much at stake, Congress must get this right, and there is an obvious solution: The U.S. Department of Education should administer an “Emergency School Voucher” program. School vouchers get aid directly to the student, and empower parents and children take real control over their education. The federal voucher could follow each young evacuee student to their new school, whether they are settled in a district in northern Louisiana or Texas or beyond. A lot of these students need immediate assistance, but they’re not located in a permanent home yet, and vouchers will give each individual student maximum flexibility as their circumstances warrant. The program could be a powerful example of connecting students and educational dollars and giving true educational choice. In fact, if the voucher were large enough, we could even see school districts across the country actively competing to attract evacuee students. That would be a pleasant irony after so much neglect in their own failing public schools.

Further, federal emergency school vouchers are an excellent way to aid the large number of Catholic-school kids displaced by the storm. The Archdiocese of New Orleans serves more than 50,000 students, and many of these kids are now displaced. School vouchers are the best way to accommodate the obvious separation of church and state issues that will arise from aiding the Catholic Church directly. Individual vouchers give students and their parents the ability to choose any school, parochial or public, and thus pass constitutional muster. Emergency school vouchers are the most effective and constitutional way to aid parochial-school kids displaced by Katrina.

Overall, there is already a working federal administrative model in the successful targeted school-choice program in Washington, D.C. Obviously, an emergency school-voucher program would be a temporary measure for the next two years while the city is rebuilt. But once families see the power and benefits of school choice, it is unlikely that they will want to return to the old, failed system. Emergency school vouchers, with federal support, could even provide a path to a permanent local school-choice program throughout New Orleans.

The New Orleans public-school system has failed its children and cannot even determine who is on their payroll. Let’s complete the Katrina rescue for the children of New Orleans and create an emergency school-voucher program. It is the responsible policy approach and it is the right thing for these kids and their families.

Chris Kinnan is the director of public affairs for FreedomWorks, an advocacy group favoring lower taxes, less government, and more freedom.