Requests Seek Financial Aid, Policy Waivers
State leaders have just begun counting the billions of dollars it will take for schools in the Gulf Coast region to recover from Hurricane Katrina. Schools around the country, meanwhile, continue to welcome the estimated 300,000-plus students displaced by the storm—some 50,000 of whom were learning last week that their home schools would likely be closed for the rest of the academic year.
Louisiana schools will need $2.8 billion in federal aid so New Orleans and surrounding districts can pay their operating costs for 2005-06, state schools chief Cecil J. Picard said in a telephone interview last week. And state officials hadn’t started estimating the expense of rebuilding more than 100 schools in the city alone.
In Mississippi, state Superintendent Hank Bounds would not offer a specific price tag for schools in his beleaguered state, but in a Sept. 8 press briefing, he warned that it would be “very, very big.”
And leaders from both states and others in the region suggested that their schools would need broad latitude in applying federal rules governing school accountability, as they try to recover from one of the worst natural disasters in the nation’s history.
“I’m worried about children right now and them surviving,” Mr. Bounds said in an interview in Gulfport, Miss., which took a direct hit from the storm. “I’ll worry about academic issues in the weeks to come.”
The migration of students displaced by Katrina has been concentrated in the South, but is spreading across the country.
Texas schools alone had registered 19,000 K-12 students as of last Thursday, a number that state officials believe could increase to 70,000. Houston has been a prime site for displaced New Orleans families. ("Houston Handles Students Influx WIth Few Problems, So Far," this issue.)
Florida schools had enrolled more than 4,000 students.
Even as school officials in Mississippi were working to help their coastal districts rebound from the hurricane, they enrolled 3,200 students from neighboring Louisiana, Mississippi officials said. And in an ad hoc form of reciprocity, some evacuees from Mississippi were arriving at schools in Louisiana districts that escaped the storm’s biggest wallop.
School officials in cities such as Louisville, Ky., canvassed shelters looking for students who needed to enroll, while the Philadelphia school district surveyed its employees to see who would be willing to house a relocating family. Districts as widely separated as Boston and San Francisco reported taking in evacuees.
Even school officials in Anchorage, Alaska, said they had received inquiries from local residents who said they had relatives with school-age children heading there from the Gulf Coast.
The reports from Louisiana and Mississippi—the two states most severely affected by Katrina—suggest that many displaced students will be in their new districts for the foreseeable future, if not permanently.
Louisiana officials said that as many as 44,000 students out of an enrollment of 60,000 from the New Orleans district and all 8,800 students in the St. Bernard Parish system would not able to return to schools in their home districts for the 2005-06 school year.
Calls for Federal Relief
As leaders in the storm-torn region started to map out the future of their schools, they made it clear that they don’t believe they’ll be able to rebuild or even reopen them without federal help.
Late last week, Mississippi officials announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had committed to provide 400 portable school buildings to the state to help it open schools as soon as next month in that state’s hardest-hit region.
But the states and districts slammed by Katrina need more than that to function in the short term, top school officials say.
The $2.8 billion in federal money that Louisiana state Superintendent Picard says is needed for operations in New Orleans and neighboring districts in the current school year would make up, he says, for the shortfall between what teachers were scheduled to earn and what they will collect in unemployment benefits and salaries they may earn elsewhere. The proposed aid would also reimburse Louisiana districts that enroll New Orleans-area students temporarily.
In addition, the aid would reimburse local districts for tax revenues lost when the storm destroyed taxable property and temporarily halted sales-tax collections, a portion of which is used to finance schools.
Mr. Picard said school officials had not had the chance to thoroughly survey damaged buildings as of last week because floodwaters hadn’t fully subsided. Once that work is done, he said, the state will submit a separate request to federal officials.
The $62.3 billion in federal aid approved last week would pay for the rescue efforts, shelters, and emergency aid and health care for displaced people.
As early as this week, Congress may begin drafting a bill that would help finance schools’ needs in the wake of Katrina, said a congressional aide familiar with the appropriations process, who asked not to be named.
Federal officials can help in other ways than by providing money, state officials say.
With such an unprecedented migration of students, state leaders are joining forces in arguing that it would be unfair to hold some schools to the stringent accountability rules under the No Child Left Behind Act. ("Bush, Spellings Stress Help for Hurricane-Affected Schools," this issue.)
State officials throughout the Southeast have asked Ms. Spelling for waivers exempting them from goals for adequate yearly progress and teacher-quality rules under the nearly 4-year-old law, said Mr. Bounds, the Mississippi state superintendent.
Mr. Bounds said that state schools chiefs in Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and other Southern states would join him in requesting such waivers. Mr. Picard said he would request waivers on AYP goals for all of the New Orleans-area districts that have closed temporarily, as well as those that have enrolled large numbers of displaced students.
Officials estimated more than 300,000 public and private school students have been displaced by the storm. That number is expected to shrink as early as this week, as some of Mississippi’s school districts re-open.
States and districts that are taking in large numbers of evacuees are expecting financial help from Washington as well.
Arkansas, which has enrolled several hundred displaced students, is providing services willingly, but is expecting to be reimbursed by the federal government, said T. Kenneth James, the state commissioner of education.
Right now, though, school officials in Arkansas and elsewhere are searching for the best way to serve displaced students, and plan to address the fiscal issues later. Their efforts are being complicated by a second wave of migration, as evacuees seek places to stay for the long term.
“There are still so many families that are in flux,” said Suellen Vann, the spokeswoman for the 25,400-student Little Rock, Ark., school district, where some families enrolled their children before Labor Day, only to move again after the holiday. “It’s going to take a while for this to settle down to see how many of the children will be with us for weeks or months.”
While most school officials say that the migration no one would have predicted just a month ago has been a challenge for them, they add that they’ve been able to absorb the inflow of students without too much difficulty.
Districts often have excess classroom space or even mothballed buildings they can use for the displaced students. Many states have waived class-size limits to give districts flexibility in making classroom assignments for the new students.
Louisiana and Mississippi education officials have assigned employees to help other states access student records in order to assist districts in making decisions about where to place students and what special education services they may need.
In the end, districts officials do not know how long they’ll be educating the newcomers. They know that thousands of students from the New Orleans area probably won’t have schools to go home to before next fall. But they don’t know how many families will choose not to return home.
Still, most are willing to help.
“We’re certainly happy to do it,” said Lorraine Shannon, a spokeswoman for the 2,800-student West Orange-Cove Consolidated Independent School District in Texas, near the Louisiana border. The district had enrolled 200 new students as of last week.
“We would hope that should something [like Hurricane Katrina] ever come our way,” she said, “wherever we would have to go, they’d be just as welcoming.”
Vol. 25, Issue 03, Pages 1,13,26-27