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Published in Print: November 16, 2005, as Hurricane-Aid Bill Backed by Boehner Dies in House

Hurricane-Aid Bill Backed by Boehner Dies in House

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When Republicans bring a House budget measure that trims many federal programs, including some in education, to the floor this week, it won’t include a plan to aid schools taking in students displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

An attempt by Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, to attach his own plan to funnel money to schools serving displaced students was unsuccessful last week. So the $54 billion budget-reconciliation act, which institutes spending cuts to reduce the deficit and make way for aid to hurricane victims, will move forward without it

Lawmakers were set to vote Nov. 10 on the budget reconciliation package, but with the House Republican leadership unsure they had enough votes to pass it and the Nov. 11 Veterans Day holiday approaching, the vote was delayed until this week.

“Clearly there were some things still to be worked out,” Heidi Armstrong, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said. “When we take it to the floor next week, we’ll have the votes.”

The budget-reconciliation measure includes $14.3 billion in cuts over five years from the $37 billion federal student aid program for college, as well as cost-saving changes to the food stamp program that some say could result in many students being dropped from the federal free- and reduced-price school lunch program.

On Nov. 3, the Senate passed its version of a budget-reconciliation bill, which includes a plan to help schools affected by Hurricane Katrina, as well as $9.6 billion in cuts to the student-loan program. It did not include cuts to food stamps.

But House leaders rejected a controversial proposal by Rep. Boehner for hurricane relief, which was defeated late last month by the House education committee in a vote in which four Republicans joined the panel’s Democrats in opposition. ("House Panel Rejects Education Accounts for Hurricane Aid", Nov. 2, 2005.)

Rep. Boehner’s proposal would have authorized providing parents with education savings accounts amounting to $6,700 per student, or $8,200 per special education student. The money would have followed students displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to the schools of their parents’ choice—regular public, public charter, or private, including religious schools.

The idea came under fire as a voucher plan, with even some Republicans on the House education committee voicing significant concerns. Two letters were sent to the House Rules Committee and House GOP leaders last week in support of Rep. Boehner’s measure. One of them, signed by more than 30 House members, asked that the bill be added on the floor. The Rules Committee determined on Nov. 9 that the measure would not be permitted to come to the floor.

In a Nov. 10 statement, Mr. Boehner said he was disappointed, but added that “our first priority remains establishing a simple, streamlined system to provide relief to the students and schools affected by the Gulf Coast hurricanes that will bypass layers of cumbersome bureaucracies.”

But worries that Republicans objecting to Mr. Boehner’s plan might vote against, and help defeat, the overall budget-reconciliation package likely kept the savings-account proposal off the floor.

Student Loans Targeted

The lead-up to the vote on the budget-reconciliation measure has included intense sparring between Republicans and Democrats over the cuts to the student-loan program. The cuts would be achieved through a variety of ways, including additional charges to student borrowers when they consolidate loans and reductions in subsidies to participating lenders.

Republicans say the proposed changes to the program would not be detrimental to students or parents. The cuts are “focused on common-sense changes that will expand college access for low- and middle-income students … while at the same time generating savings for taxpayers by reducing excess subsidies … and placing the loan programs on a solid financial foundation for the future,” according to a Nov. 8 memo released by Republicans on the House education committee.

But Democrats on the education panel feel otherwise. At a Nov. 4 press conference, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the ranking minority member, expressed outrage at the plan, saying it would make it harder for students to attend college.

“Already we’re leaving a whole generation behind. If these proposed budget cuts go through, … most middle income families, too, will have a difficult time,” Rep. Miller said.

Republicans countered that Democrats were attempting to “distort the facts in order to scare students and protect the status quo for a system badly in need of reform,” their Nov. 8 memo said.

Food Stamp Fallout?

A change to the food stamp program also could affect schools. The House reconciliation package includes a cut of $824 million over five years to the program, with Republicans arguing that cuts are needed to offset the deficit and other spending.

In many states, families that qualify for food stamps are automatically qualified for free school lunches and do not have to fill out additional paperwork to sign up for that program.

Many students—estimates from the Congressional Budget Office run as high as 40,000—would fall through the cracks, said James D. Weill, the president of the Food Research and Action Center, or FRAC, based in Washington.

“At a time when there’s more poverty and food insecurity and more need for kids to not be hungry so they can learn, it’s bizarre in the extreme for the House to cut foods stamps and school lunch in order to rebuild New Orleans,” Mr. Weill said.

Vol. 25, Issue 12, Pages 25-26

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