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Published in Print: September 28, 2005, as Federal Hurricane Aid for Schools Debated

Federal Hurricane Aid for Schools Debated

Some worry that a plan for vouchers might delay overall relief package.

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As schools torn apart by Hurricane Katrina look to rebuild, and districts welcoming displaced students wonder how to pay for their education, federal officials last week were still mulling options for providing aid to schools.

Congress is weighing several large education aid packages that would provide differing levels and methods of funding.

But progress on passing relief for school districts could be snagged by a growing insistence from some Republicans for cuts elsewhere in the federal budget to offset massive spending for hurricane relief, and by controversy over President Bush’s proposal to provide private school vouchers for students displaced by the storm.

Assistant Secretary of Education Henry L. Johnson, left, listens as Sen. Trent Loft, R-Miss., addresses a Senate subcommittee last week on hurricane aid to schools.
Assistant Secretary of Education Henry L. Johnson, left, listens as Sen. Trent Loft, R-Miss., addresses a Senate subcommittee last week on hurricane aid to schools.
—Christopher Powers/Education Week

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said last week that the budgetary concerns may mean that some Department of Education programs put on the budget chopping block by President Bush earlier this year, but saved by congressional appropriators, may again be at risk.

“Obviously, there are things in the Department of Education budget and in the federal budget in general that the president has called for either trimming or eliminating,” she said in a Sept. 21 speech at the National Press Club here. “We have some programs in our own budget that are not as effective as they could be. … Those things will be on the table as we negotiate.”

Meanwhile, education leaders in Louisiana and Mississippi, the states most directly affected by Katrina, say they need money immediately. They are looking to Washington for relief, even as their own legislators weigh state-level responses. ("Louisiana, Mississippi Lawmakers to Weigh Revenue Needs," this issue.)

Hank M. Bounds, the Mississippi state superintendent of education, said in an interview on Capitol Hill last week that the federal government must help his state fill in the gaps in lost tax revenue in order for it to begin rebuilding.

“The revenues school districts receive obviously will not look like what they budgeted,” said Mr. Bounds, who met with Secretary Spellings last week and requested $1.8 billion in aid on top of the $1.2 billion he expects from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “There is nothing Mississippi can do to help those districts survive.”

At a Sept. 22 hearing before the Senate education committee’s Subcommittee on Education and Childhood Development, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., pressed her fellow lawmakers to speed the process.

“This is going to take quick action,” she said. “The situation is quite dire.”

Competing Programs

The competing ideas on the table in Washington include a bipartisan bill introduced by Senate education committee leaders on Sept. 15 and President Bush’s own hurricane-relief package for schools, the details of which were made public the following day. On Sept. 22, Sen. Landrieu unveiled her own wide-ranging relief bill that included a school component.

Sen. Landrieu’s legislation and the committee bill would authorize Congress to spend money on hurricane-related aid, but wouldn’t actually appropriate it.

The Landrieu plan includes $2 billion to help areas rebuild or repair school buildings; $1 billion for the Louisiana Department of Education to continue school district funding regardless of enrollment; $750 million in teacher-incentive funds to help affected districts retain their staffs; and $4,000 per student to districts enrolling evacuated students.

The bill introduced by Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the committee’s ranking Democrat, would authorize aid to hard-hit school districts seeking to rebuild.

“Children can’t lose a year of school,” Sen. Kennedy said in a statement. “In the weeks and months ahead, we must also focus on rebuilding and reconstructing the schools devastated by the tragedy so that, as soon as possible, children can return to schools fully stocked with the resources they need.”

The measure, if funded, would award up to $900 million in immediate grants to districts directly harmed by Hurricane Katrina to reopen schools. That money would supplement money from FEMA. Districts could use the money under the Enzi-Kennedy bill to recover data, replace instructional materials and equipment, and establish temporary buildings and classrooms. But the money could not be used for construction or renovation of schools.

Money for reconstruction costs will come from private insurance and FEMA, said Melissa Janssen, a spokeswoman for the federal agency. Federal construction money is being funneled to states through two hurricane-aid measures that have already been enacted, she said.

FEMA money typically flows to states to repair infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and schools. For projects costing over $55,000, following estimates for rebuilding, FEMA sends the money to the state, which then doles it out to school districts, Ms. Janssen said.

Meanwhile, under the Enzi-Kennedy plan, districts enrolling displaced students would be able to tap in to $2.5 billion to serve them. The money would be distributed based on a formula that ultimately would pay the entire cost for displaced students, based on the state’s average per-pupil expenditure on education, said Craig Orfield, a spokesman for Republicans on the Senate education committee.

“We felt it was a great start,” Mary Kusler, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, said of the Enzi-Kennedy bill.

Aside from funding, the two senators’ bill would also provide the secretary of education with waiver authority for provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, including reporting requirements, assessment, and school improvement action. And it would permit temporary reciprocity across state lines for “highly qualified” teachers and paraprofessionals to help states comply with the federal law.

President Bush’s $1.9 billion plan for aiding K-12 schools requires approval from Congress.

“Just as appropriators do with the president’s budget or anything else he sends up, it doesn’t mean they’re going to do exactly what he wants,” said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the 2.7 million-member National Education Association.

Giving and Taking Away

The Bush administration’s proposal differs from the Enzi-Kennedy package significantly in how it would provide hurricane-related aid for schools. Under the administration plan, the federal government would pick up 90 percent of the costs of educating displaced students, up to $7,500 per student, in addition to covering costs such as new-teacher salaries, extra busing, and new materials. ("Bush Proposes Evacuee Aid for Districts, School Vouchers," Sept. 21, 2005.)

For Louisiana and Mississippi, money would flow to the state, rather than directly to districts, to enroll students in open schools and kick-start rebuilding efforts.

And the president proposed $488 million in aid to give any evacuated family up to $7,500 a student for tuition at a private or religious school. ("Relief Palcs Spurring Debate Over Vouchers," this issue.)

President Bush’s plan would force both school districts devastated by Hurricane Katrina and those only enrolling displaced students to vie for the same pot of money, said Jeff Simering, the legislative director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group that represents 65 large urban districts.

“New Orleans would be competing with Baton Rouge and Shreveport, who are receiving thousands of kids, for the same pot of money,” Mr. Simering said of the effect in Louisiana. “We don’t think that is a viable or a wise strategy.”

The president’s plan would also give the secretary of education authority to waive most aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act on a case-by-case basis. However, at the Senate education subcommittee hearing Sept. 22, Henry L. Johnson, the department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, who until recently was Mississippi’s state schools chief, said there would not be a long list of waivers issued.

“The secretary has been very clear that she has no intention of doing blanket waivers,” he said.

Secretary Spellings said she understood the urgency of providing aid to districts that need to rebuild or expand classrooms for displaced students.

“Expediency is of the essence,” she said. “These schools do need resources.”

President Bush’s voucher proposal tops the list of provisions that could slow the passage of a relief package for education, said Norman J. Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

“I think they’re going to have some real difficulty building support for the package, including in the Republican Party,” he said of the Bush administration.

Vol. 25, Issue 05, Pages 24,26

Web Resources
  • Review a series of policy letters from U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to states outlining federal assistance and waivers that are to be granted to those states displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
  • Read the complete text of Secretary Spellings' September 21 back-to-school address at National Press Club, Washington, D.C.
  • The U.S. Department of Education's hurricane resource provides an overview of the support being offered to states and school districts affected by Hurricane Katrina.
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Correction: 
This story incorrectly listed the amount of aid that Mississippi state Superintendent of Education Hank M. Bounds requested in a Sept. 16 letter to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to help school districts affected by Hurricane Katrina. The correct amount is $1.8 billion, which includes an estimated $1.2 billion in expenditures that could be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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