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Published in Print: November 4, 2005, as Senate OKs Hurricane-Aid Plan for Schools

Senate OKs Hurricane-Aid Plan for Schools

Private school students included in $1.66 billion bill

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The Senate last week approved a plan to channel aid to school districts hit by Hurricane Katrina and those taking in students displaced by the storm. The plan also allows private schools to be compensated for taking in displaced students, a provision that has raised alarm among opponents of private school vouchers.

The bipartisan package, sponsored by leading members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, cleared the full Senate on a voice vote Nov. 3. The bill was adopted as an amendment to a larger budget-reconciliation bill for fiscal 2006 that was approved in the Senate later that same day. The budget bill includes offsets that would help pay for the hurricane aid.

The $1.66 billion relief bill for schools appropriates $450 million for districts damaged by the hurricane to help them get up and running. It would flow to districts in addition to any hurricane aid they receive from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The bill would also provide $1.2 billion to help schools—public or private, including religious schools—that have taken in students displaced by the destructive late-August hurricane along the Gulf Coast. Schools would receive $6,000 per student, or $7,500 per student with disabilities.

The amounts allocated for those programs were decreased from an earlier version of the bill that would have authorized $900 million for directly damaged school districts and $2.5 billion for districts serving displaced students. ("Hurricane-Relief Bills Pile Up in Congress," Oct. 26, 2005.)

The Department of Education has said that some 372,000 students in public and private schools and colleges were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

“The children have been doing their part trying to learn, the parents have been doing their part working with their children and working with the community, the schools are doing their part,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the ranking minority member on the Senate education committee and a co-sponsor of the bill, said at a press conference. “Today, the Senate of the United States did its part.”

Voucher Boost Debated

The chairman of the education panel, Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., and Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., also co-sponsored the legislation. The bill also includes $10 million for the education of homeless children under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. In addition, a provision would temporarily provide reciprocity between states in recognizing as “highly qualified,” under the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers who were displaced by the hurricane.

Though districts in the Gulf Coast region and beyond have been clamoring for federal hurricane relief, the Senate bill has come under fire from groups that said it would constitute a voucher program by sending federal money to private schools. The measure would require public school districts to pass along the appropriate per-pupil allocation for each displaced student to religious and secular private schools located in their districts.

“It was unnecessary for the Senate to turn a much-needed hurricane-relief proposal into a vehicle for what may become the largest, costliest private-school-voucher program in U.S. history,” said Joan Schmidt, the president of the Alexandria-based National School Boards Association.

But Sen. Alexander bristled at the idea that the bill was a voucher program or that it was a harbinger of future federal aid for private school tuition. The plan would be in place only for this school year, he said during a press conference, calling the measure a “triumph of common sense over ideology.”

“It’s a temporary program—one time—[that] doesn’t change any permanent education law,” he said. “It’s not a precedent. It helps a problem.”

Pro-voucher groups expressed support for the measure. Clint Bolick, the president and general counsel of the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice, lauded Sens. Enzi and Kennedy in a statement for “standing up against enormous special-interest pressure.”

The House must now address its hurricane aid proposals. On Oct. 27, the House Education and the Workforce Committee rejected a hurricane aid plan for schools sponsored by the committee’s chairman, Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.

Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for the Republicans on the committee, said Rep. Boehner intended to try to attach his plan for “family education reimbursement accounts” to the House budget-reconciliation measure likely to come up on the floor this week.

Vol. 25, Issue 11, Pages 27,29

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