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Published in Print: October 26, 2005, as Hurricane-Relief Bills Pile Up in Congress

Hurricane-Relief Bills Pile Up in Congress

Senate measure sparks controversy on religion.

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Congress continues to debate—and add to—a long list of proposals that would provide federal education aid to districts damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and others taking in students displaced by the storms. But the initial urgency for school aid appears to have stalled, and by late last week those proposals had made little progress.

The newest plan, introduced in the Senate on Oct. 20, may be one that stands a good chance of progressing. A bipartisan bill sponsored by Senate education leaders, it aims to avoid some of the controversy raised by other plans by using money channeled through public schools to reimburse private schools taking in hurricane-displaced students. That contrasts with proposals to offer aid through vouchers, with parents directing where the money would go.

But the new plan may spark a controversy of its own, over restrictions on the use of such funding for religious purposes in private schools.

Staff members for the sponsors of the new bill, Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the ranking minority member, had expected a quick vote on the measure, but the controversy put that in doubt late last week.

Meanwhile, school leaders in hurricane-battered districts in the Gulf Coast were still waiting last week for Congress to act.

“Our needs are very urgent at this time,” said Doris Voitier, the superintendent of the still-closed St. Bernard Parish, La., public school system, which served 8,800 students before Katrina struck in late August.

“People’s lives are in our hands,” she said, “and we can’t give them any answers because we’re waiting for movement from our federal government.”

There’s no dearth of congressional ideas on how to help hurricane-affected schools. The new proposal from Sens. Enzi and Kennedy updates one they introduced in September, but which lacked a key component: how to reimburse private schools taking in hurricane-displaced students.

New Enzi-Kennedy Plan

Though several other bills propose vouchers, Sens. Enzi and Kennedy generally oppose the concept of vouchers.

Under their latest bill, school districts would receive quarterly-installment payments for each displaced student enrolled in either a public or private school in that district, up to $6,000 per student for the year or as much as $7,500 for a special education student. Districts would be responsible for passing along the appropriate amounts to religious and secular private schools located in their districts. The bill would authorize $2.5 billion for that program.

But it stipulates that the money could not be used by private schools for religious activities, and that parents enrolling their children in religious schools would have to opt in to any religious education.

Clint Bolick, the president and general counsel of the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice, called the restrictions discriminatory.

“The bill appears to exclude religious instruction. If so, it would render ineligible most religious schools, due to its insistence that religion be excluded from their educational program,” he said in a statement Oct. 20.

But Laura Capps, a spokeswoman for Sen. Kennedy, said the bill requires only that federal money not pay for religious education, a line such schools typically have experience walking, she said.

On the other side of the debate, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said that the bill would divert funding from public schools to religious ones, forcing taxpayers to subsidize religion.

“This gives millions of dollars in virtually unrestricted cash grants to religious schools,” said the Washington-based group’s executive director, Barry W. Lynn.

‘Reimbursement Accounts’

The House of Representatives, too, had a new hurricane-relief proposal for schools last week, coming from Republicans on the education committee.

That bill, unveiled Oct. 18 by sponsors Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La., would create “family education reimbursement accounts”—$6,700 in aid to follow each displaced student to whichever regular public school, charter school, or private school he or she enrolled in.

Parents would enroll their children in the program by calling a toll-free telephone number to establish an account that could be used for one year for prekindergarten through 12th grade students. The one-year accounts would essentially act as education vouchers, going with displaced students to the schools of their choice.

“Our hurricane-recovery efforts must be focused on empowering individuals, and that’s why this proposal provides direct aid to parents and families rather than simply writing a blank check to existing bureaucracies,” Mr. Boehner said in a statement Oct. 18.

The Boehner-Jindal measure is one of several plans, including one introduced by Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, modeled on a proposal outlined by President Bush in September that would rely on vouchers, or something like them, to provide money for educating displaced students in their choice of schools.

The issue of vouchers has been divisive, and critics of the idea contend that the debate over them has slowed any momentum hurricane-aid proposals for schools once had.

“Vouchers are the number-one reason why education pieces have stalled,” said Marc Egan, the director of federal affairs for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association. “We would question the motivation of those pushing the voucher approach.”

Paying the Bills

But Vic Klatt, an education lobbyist with Van Scoyoc and Associates in Washington and a former aide to Republicans on the House education committee, said the voucher debates are not the main reason hurricane education aid has bogged down. The mounting price tag for overall federal hurricane relief has made lawmakers think twice, he said, about how much they are willing to support.

“It’s so much money, it’s hard to even get your arms around it,” Mr. Klatt said.

Congress has already appropriated $62 billion in overall emergency aid to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but to date about $42 billion of that money has not been spent. A bill introduced in late September by Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., would allow $15 billion of that unspent money to be redirected to schools. But that proposal has not gained traction.

Eventually, Mr. Klatt said, Congress will approve hurricane-relief money for schools.

For districts waiting for federal aid, that assurance doesn’t help now.

“We are about to get into dire straits,” said Bonnie P. Granger, the director of business management for the Biloxi, Miss., school district, which served 6,200-students before the hurricane.

Ms. Granger said that because of damage from Hurricane Katrina, her district no longer receives some $600,000 in monthly gambling-tax revenue from riverboat casinos that were wiped out by Katrina. And property-tax dollars the district typically receives in January and February are unlikely to materialize.

“It’s absolutely critical that Congress make some appropriations or we’re going to have checks bouncing,” she said.

Vol. 25, Issue 09, Pages 36,39

Web Resources
  • The U.S. Department of Education's hurricane resource provides an overview of the federal support being offered to states and school districts affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
  • A Sept. 29, 2005, letter to state school chiefs from U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings outlines flexibility measures related to the No Child Left Behind Act for those states affected by the hurricanes. A series of policy letters from Secretary Spellings outlining federal assistance and waivers already granted are also available.
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