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Published in Print: November 2, 2005, as House Panel Rejects Education Accounts for Hurricane Aid

House Panel Rejects Education Accounts for Hurricane Aid

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A Republican plan to send hurricane aid to both public and private schools was defeated unexpectedly last week in the House education committee, after coming under attack as a voucher program in disguise.

Four Republicans sided with 22 Democrats on the House Education and the Workforce Committee on Oct. 27 to reject the plan to use “family education reimbursement accounts” to funnel money to schools taking in students displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which hit the Gulf Coast in August and September. The vote was 26-21 against the bill.

After the vote, Rep. John A. Boehner, D-Ohio, the committee’s chairman and a sponsor of the bill, proposed an alternative plan in the hope of appeasing committee members. The new plan would allow regular public, public charter, and private schools to apply directly to the U.S. secretary of education to receive reimbursement for educating hurricane-displaced students. The committee did not act on the second plan last week.

Rep. Boehner’s original plan would have authorized giving parents education accounts amounting to $6,700 per student in most cases, and $8,200 for students in special education. The money in the accounts, which would have been authorized only for the current school year, would follow displaced students to the schools of their parents’ choice—public, charter, or private, including religious schools. Parents would register their children through a toll-free telephone number, be provided a personal-identification number, and then give that number to the school, which would use it to collect the federal payment.

But during a feisty discussion of the plan, Democrats on the education panel clearly considered it a form of tuition voucher—an idea that their party and public school groups generally oppose.

“If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then I don’t know what else it could be except a duck,” said Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill. “I don’t know what else this could be except a way to inject vouchers into the public arena.”

Plan B

After the committee voted against Rep. Boehner’s plan, the chairman floated his backup plan of direct grants to schools from the Department of Education to cover the expenses of educating displaced children, using the same per-pupil cost estimates as his earlier proposal.

“It’s unfortunate that even in a time of national emergency, the education establishment refuses to consider new ideas to meet the needs of students, families, and individual schools affected by these unprecedented natural disasters,” Mr. Boehner said in a statement.

Some Republicans had vigorously denied any ulterior motives in putting forward the original $2.5 billion plan, which also included authorization of $50 million for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, saying the accounts would give private schools the opportunity to be repaid for taking in hurricane-displaced students and would end after one year.

“There’s no mechanism in place for federal dollars to get to private or parochial schools,” Mr. Boehner said. “The money would flow directly, at the parents’ decision, from the Department of Education to the private school.”

Democrats had other concerns about the proposal, including what they viewed as a lack of accountability for how the money would be used in private schools, a new layer of bureaucracy, and opportunities for fraud.

But Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, noted that under the bill, a private company would be hired to monitor the disbursement of funds, and that the program would be closely scrutinized.

Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the education committee, called it cumbersome.

“You’re depending on the parent calling in on a timely basis,” he said, adding that “the idea that the answer to this problem almost 90 days [after Hurricane Katrina] is 1-800-voucher, just doesn’t hold.”

Some committee Republicans also objected to elements of Rep. Boehner’s bill. Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., expressed concern that the parental accounts were akin to vouchers, and would set a dangerous precedent.

“I’m disturbed we couldn’t find some way to get money to children desperately in need of it other than through that program,” said Ms. Biggert, who voted against the bill. The other GOP members who voted against the proposal were Reps. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, Todd R. Platts of Pennsylvania, and John R. “Randy” Kuhl Jr. of New York.

No Consensus

Rep. Miller, along with Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., introduced a substitute proposal that would have authorized $4 billion for schools directly damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and it would have authorized $8,314 per student to districts taking in displaced students. The schools, including private schools, would have applied directly to the Education Department for payment. The plan was defeated on a 25-21 party-line vote.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, a bipartisan plan for hurricane-related aid to schools that supporters had hoped would easily sweep through last week stalled after being assailed by groups of various ideological stripes.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and its ranking member, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., would authorize providing school districts taking in displaced students with quarterly installment payments, up to $6,000 per displaced student for the school year or as much as $7,500 for a student in special education. ("Educators Discover That Tracking Displaced Students is a Challenge," Oct. 26, 2005.)

But groups such as the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice, which supports public funding for private school tuition, objected to the bill’s restrictions on use of federal money to pay for religious instruction, while Ralph G. Neas, the president of the liberal group People for the American Way, in Washington, denounced the proposal as “the largest private school voucher program in the nation’s history.”

Vol. 25, Issue 10, Page 26

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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