Speeches & Floor Statements
Posted on September 20, 2005
Each weekend when I go home to Tennessee, the people who elected me teach me about how we should be doing our jobs here in Washington. This isn’t a lesson they shout from the rooftops; it’s one they live by their own example, and we would be wise to follow it. Two weeks ago, in Maryville, it was Al Gore flying a planeload of evacuees from New Orleans into one of Tennessee’s most Republican counties. Nobody asked about anybody’s politics. Everybody just pitched in to help. Last weekend, it was members of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Nashville sending $80,000 and a truck load of clothes and Clorox to southern Mississippi. “The Presbyterians are here,” one grateful Mississippi man called his friends on his cell phone to say, “and they have Clorox.” When the Clorox was passed out, nobody asked if anybody else was a Presbyterian. And now, this Sunday, the headline in the Tennessean – the Nashville newspaper – was “Private Schools Welcome Those Displaced by Katrina.” According to the newspaper, “a growing number of private schools in Middle Tennessee . . . have volunteered to help students displaced by Katrina. Many of them are also waiving or drastically discounting tuition and fees for these students, and some also accept evacuees from public schools.” “These children are in crisis. They have been displaced, but they have found a home,” said the principal of Father Ryan High School who has accepted 20 students and is trying to accommodate every student who shows up. Father Ryan is waiving the $6,880 tuition, the $350 activity fee and the $500 in books for displaced students it simply calls “transfers.” “It’s not all about money,” said the principal. “There is no amount of money that equals being family.” Public schools by law have to accept all children. And Tennessee’s public schools have made room for more than 3,000 of Katrina’s displaced school children. Our public schools have been greatly helped by private schools that don’t have to accept anybody. In Tennessee, private schools have accepted at least 400 students and probably more. “We couldn’t sit quietly and do nothing. We felt a need to reach out,” said the headmaster of Webb School in Bell Buckle, which is waiving the $29,500 room and board for up to 30 students. “No one flinched. Everybody just responded with – what can we do to help?” Especially in Memphis, where so many displaced students have gone, the willingness of private schools to accept these students is a huge help to overcrowded public schools. In Baton Rouge, according to a report this morning on National Public Radio, there are five to ten thousand of these displaced private school students who have no school to attend. To accommodate them, the Catholic Diocese in Baton Rouge is struggling to establish satellite schools some located at great distances away which these students will attend at night. These private schools in Tennessee and elsewhere that reach out are filling a huge need because the four Louisiana parishes hit the hardest had nearly one third or 61,000 of their 187,000 students in private schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That was the story and the lesson from Tennessee. The story in Washington last weekend, unfortunately, was different. According to Saturday’s Washington Post, when President Bush proposed emergency disaster legislation that would help all of Katrina’s 372,000 displaced children during the rest of this school year, the senator from Massachusetts and some teachers’ unions objected. Senator Kennedy said, “I am extremely disappointed that [the president] has proposed this relief using such a politically charged approach. This is not time for a partisan political debate on vouchers.” I absolutely agree with that last sentence. This is not the time for a partisan political debate on vouchers. This is the time for those of us in the Senate to do what Tennesseans and Americans all across our country are doing: opening our arms and asking what we can do for help—for all displaced children, not just some children. Katrina displaced 20 times more families than any natural disaster in the history of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Three hundred and seventy-two thousand (372,000) of those displaced persons are children who were just beginning the K-12 school year. Seventy-three thousand (73,000) were college students. The president has proposed $2.6 billion in funding for students in elementary and secondary schools and colleges. Under his proposal: • Colleges and universities would receive $1,000 for each displaced student enrolled; • No person in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama would have to pay interest on their student loans for the next six months; • Public school districts would receive up to 90 percent of the state’s per pupil expenditure, up to $7,500; • And $488 million would go to help displaced students who attend private schools. The president is not throwing out a lifeline to just some displaced students. He is trying to help them all. The private schools in Tennessee are not turning their backs. They are opening their arms. Katrina didn’t discriminate and neither should we. The only politically charged approaches around here are coming from those who oppose helping every child. For heaven’s sake, this is not the beginning of some new voucher program. It is the beginning of a big, one-year effort to help children who are in desperate trouble. And the best way to do it in most cases is simply to let the money follow the child. We have already approved vouchers that follow displaced persons for housing. And food stamps are vouchers. No one is suggesting that a displaced mother cannot take her federal child care voucher to a Catholic day care center. No one is suggesting that we can’t pay Boston College or Harvard University $1,000 for enrolling a displaced student who was set to attend Loyola or Xavier in New Orleans. Scholars agree there is no constitutional issue here. So are we just going to stand here and argue about old ideologies and leave these displaced children standing on the levee because the doors that are open to them for this one year happen to be those of a private school? At the end of World War II, a grateful nation enacted the GI Bill giving veterans scholarships for college. A lot of veterans had these vouchers for college, but no high school degree. So thousands of veterans took their GI vouchers to Catholic high schools to earn their high school diploma. That did not create a big new voucher program for high schools, and this won’t either. This is a one year disaster relief program for kids from the Gulf Coast who need help. The public schools are brimming over. They need help from private schools. I hope those who are objecting to helping all displaced school children will think again. We can have our debates about vouchers next year when the floodwaters subside and the schools are open again. Right now we need to be throwing out every lifeline that we can—for all of Katrina’s displaced school children, not just some. I ask unanimous consent to include in the congressional record the story from Sunday’s Tennessean about the generosity of private schools all across Tennessee. I hope that the example they are setting will be a good lesson for those of us in this chamber.