Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), long a champion of liberal causes, has infuriated longtime allies by introducing what advocacy groups are deriding as a voucher measure to assist Catholic schools in Louisiana.
The bill, which was introduced in the Senate yesterday, calls for both public and private schools hosting students displaced by Hurricane Katrina to receive $6,000 in aid per student. Most of the private schools in Louisiana are Roman Catholic.
Although the money would be distributed by the school districts, liberal advocacy groups say the bill sets a bad precedent, and does not offer enough anti-discrimination safeguards required of public institutions that receive federal money.
"This is a voucher -- it walks likes a voucher and quacks like a voucher. There's just no way to get around it," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "The money ends up in the treasury of religious schools. And religious schools are religious all the time. It's not only bad policy. It violates the Constitution."
Various advocacy groups are pressuring Democratic senators to put the brakes on the measure, which is part of larger emergency recovery bill. Kennedy, the ranking minority member on the Senate Education Committee, introduced the bill with Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.).
The senators had hoped to have the bill passed by unanimous consent no later than next week, but a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid said yesterday that Reid will take time to review the bill and "talk to his colleagues about whether and how to proceed."
Republicans and Democrats have long been at odds over school vouchers, which essentially provide public money for students to attend private schools. Kennedy has historically taken a strong stand against vouchers.
The Massachusetts senator's staff insisted yesterday that the measure is not a voucher but a "pragmatic" way to get much-needed funds to private schools that have taken in many victims of Katrina.
"This bill puts the interests of the children victimized by Katrina ahead of politics and ideological battles," Kennedy said in statement. "It puts in place an efficient and temporary system to get the necessary aid to the schools without further delay."