Bush, Spellings Stress Help for Hurricane-Affected Schools
Some in Congress propose aid for districts enrolling evacuees, but nothing is set in stone.
Sitting before a panel of U.S. senators in an ornate hearing room on Capitol Hill, Diane Roussel, the superintendent of the battered Jefferson Parish, La., school district, began to cry last week as she described what her students and employees needed from the federal government.
The emotional moment underscored what many educators say is a dire need for more federal money and other support for schools both in areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina and those taking in displaced students.
Here in Washington last week, everyone from President Bush to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to members of Congress was spending at least some time drawing up plans to aid students and schools.
In an informal hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Sept. 8, Ms. Roussel said that her district’s 52,000 students had scattered, that many of her 84 schools were under water, and that the economy of her community, which is adjacent to New Orleans, was shredded.
What she wanted more than anything, she said, was to reopen her schools’ doors in a limited capacity, with the hope that rebuilding could begin.
“When the schools open, people will come back,” Ms. Roussel said. “Our people want to come home and we want them back.”("'Normal' a Long Way Off for Schools in Louisiana" Sept. 14, 2004)
Even by late in the week, federal officials were offering few specifics on how much money would be offered to help hurricane-affected schools. On Sept. 8, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader, introduced a bill that would authorize $2,500 to school districts for each evacuated student they enrolled and additional funding to cover such costs as books and salaries for new teachers and counselors. However, the bill would not actually appropriate funds for those efforts.
Although Congress has already approved $10.5 billion in federal hurricane relief, and late last week approved a package of $51.8 billion more that was signed by President Bush, none of that money was specifically set aside for education.
At the same Senate education committee session, Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, recommended that Congress create a separate, dedicated pot of money for the Department of Education to address school issues related to Katrina, and that lawmakers make sure the department has the authority it needs to coordinate aid.
Listening to Suggestions
Secretary Spellings did her own listening last week. On Sept. 8, she traveled with first lady Laura Bush to meet hurricane victims. The pair stopped at Greenbrook Elementary School in Southaven, Miss., where they spoke to students who enrolled there after evacuating their homes because of the hurricane.
“We are committed to doing everything we can to help as local communities enroll these children in new schools,” Ms. Spellings said.
The Education Department launched a “Hurricane Help for Schools” Web site, at www.ed.gov/katrina, to help link donors with schools in need.
Meanwhile, the department has pointed schools to the federal law and department guidance dealing with homeless students, which allow certain paperwork requirements to be waived. But the law, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, says homeless students shouldn’t be segregated from the rest of the student population, which could pose a problem for districts that plan to teach displaced students in shelters or to open mothballed school buildings to serve them.
Secretary Spellings has suggested the Education Department will handle requests for waivers from federal legal requirements on a case-by-case basis. ("Secretary to Weigh NCLB Waivers for Crisis on a Case-by-Case Basis" Sept. 14, 2004)
On Sept. 7, Ms. Spellings met with officials from 54 education groups to help coordinate relief efforts. Following the meeting, she said the Education Department was compiling a draft of what it would ask from Congress in federal school-related relief, but said she was not ready to make that proposal public.
Some groups have appealed directly to Congress, including the National Education Association and the National School Boards Association. Their suggestions include designated federal funding to cover the need for expenses like temporary educational facilities and the reallocation of existing funds, such as Title I money, for hurricane-related school needs.
In addition, officials of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which strongly backs charter schools, has proposed allowing such schools to operate in sites where evacuees have settled, and establishing a national online charter school to educate displaced students.
Earlier in the week, Ms. Spellings had flanked President Bush in the Oval Office as he called attention to the plight of both districts damaged by the hurricane and those taking in evacuees.
“We want to thank the schools and the school districts and the teachers and the PTAs for reaching out and doing their duty,” Mr. Bush said.
Vol. 25, Issue 03, Page 21