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Published in Print: January 4, 2006, as Congress Passes Hurricane Aid for Schools

Congress Passes Hurricane Aid for Schools

Most of $1.6 billion in bill sent to Bush is set for K-12 education.

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The long-awaited federal aid for schools damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and for those that took in thousands of students displaced by the devastating storms appears to be on the way.

In a rush to complete key legislation before the holidays, the Senate on Dec. 21 voted 93-0 to pass a defense spending bill that includes $1.6 billion in hurricane-related aid for education, with $1.4 billion slated for K-12 public and private schools and the rest earmarked for higher education. The House approved the measure Dec. 22 by unanimous consent.

But the one-year spending measure prompted an outcry among some education groups—even those that have been clamoring for aid to schools affected by the Gulf Coast disasters—because of its measures for channeling federal aid to private schools.

Joan E. Schmidt, the president of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., and a school board member of the Fairfield, Mont., School District No. 21, said the measure contained “a private-school-voucher program under the guise of hurricane relief.”

The legislation includes $750 million for schools that were directly affected by the hurricanes. But, unlike earlier relief proposals offered in the wake of the storms, the final plan provides more federal financial aid to private schools, including religious schools. And the formula it uses to do so would distribute money to damaged schools without regard to the number of students who attended the schools.

That means small private schools could get a windfall, leaving equally damaged public schools with higher enrollments with less than they deserve, said Kim Anderson, a lobbyist for the National Education Association. Ms. Anderson said “this was never contemplated in the earlier proposals that were floating around.”

Advocates for private schools were pleased with the legislation.

Monsignor Francis J. Maniscalco, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, said church leaders were glad to see Congress realize “that these parochial schools are providing a service to people who need our services” following the storms.

Clint Bolick, the president of the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy group for private school vouchers, called the bill a “victory for children over special-interest groups.”

President Bush had not signed the defense appropriations bill as of Dec. 28, but the White House suggested he would do so by early this month.

Private School Aid

Though observers were still picking their way through the bill’s language late last month, it appears that the federal hurricane aid will be divided between public and private schools based on how many schools of each type are in the state, said Mary Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

For example, she said, if private schools made up 20 percent of all schools in a state, 20 percent of the relief funds for that state would be set aside for such schools.

“There’s no equity in terms of students or size of facility,” Ms. Kusler said.

The American Federation of Teachers also expressed its objections. In a Dec. 21 letter to senators, Kristor W. Cowan, a lobbyist for the 1.3 million-member union, wrote that his organization was “deeply concerned that because of a flawed funding methodology, nonpublic schools would receive a disproportionate share” of hurricane aid.

Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said relief would flow to private schools from their states. Under the measure, private schools would have to submit their purchase requests to the states, which in turn would use the federal money to buy what was needed.

If the money set aside for private schools wasn’t used within a time limit, Ms. Marrero said, it would revert to the pot of money set aside for public schools.

Also included in the measure is $645 million in hurricane aid for schools across the country that have taken in displaced students. Schools would receive $6,000 per general education student and $7,500 per student in special education. That provision is similar to one that passed the Senate in November under a bipartisan plan offered by Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and its ranking minority member, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., among others.

Under that part of the measure, private schools that took in displaced students would receive their portion of the money through local school districts. Parents of hurricane-displaced students attending private schools would be required to contact the district in which the private school was located for the school to be reimbursed.

Rep. John A. Boehner, the chairman of the House education committee, praised the measure, saying it would help all schools that need hurricane aid.

“This agreement reflects our key priorities for relief: streamlining bureaucracy, allowing full participation by public, private, and charter schools, and targeting relief based on individual students,” he said in a Dec. 19 statement after a preliminary House vote on the plan.

But some groups are concerned because that provision does not restrict how the private schools could use the aid, particularly when it comes to religious instruction. It also does not waive religious schools’ federally protected rights to make employment decisions based on religion.

“This program throws open the door to using taxpayer dollars to fund private schools,” said Ralph G. Neas, the president of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group based in Washington. “It also allows for government funding of religion and religious discrimination. We deeply regret its passage.”

The measure also includes $5 million for the education of homeless children, and would allow displaced teachers who had already achieved “highly qualified” status in their home states to get the same designation for one year in the states to which they moved following the hurricanes. Such status is required for most teachers under the federal No Child Left Behind Act by the end of this school year.

The measure also waives income and documentation requirements for children affected by the hurricanes to allow their participation in Head Start and Early Head Start programs.

A Good Night’s Sleep

Mississippi state Superintendent of Education Hank M. Bounds said that coastal school districts and communities in his state were desperate for federal aid. Several Gulf Coast districts will run out of money early this year and may be forced to shut down temporarily without federal money to help meet their payrolls, he said.

Most storm-hit districts have exhausted their reserves to clean flooded schools and reopen campuses that were not destroyed. Mr. Bounds said he was looking forward to a good night's sleep after Congress passed the aid bill.

“We have a number of school districts that are in critical shape financially, and more will be in the same situation very early after the first of the year,” the superintendent said.

Before the final votes on the hurricane-relief measure, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, made several trips to Washington to lobby for school aid, Mr. Bounds said. The state superintendent added that he had made several visits to Capitol Hill himself and met with every member of Congress from Mississippi or members of their staffs to seek help with the relief package.

Mr. Bounds did not have any strong views on whether private schools should qualify for some of the relief. “We need help. I just don’t have time to debate it,” he said of the aid for private schools. “We need immediate help.”

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings praised the measure and pledged to get it to those in need as quickly as possible, using streamlined operations.

“The U.S. Department of Education,” she said in a Dec. 22 statement, “will expedite delivery of this aid to where it’s needed.”

PHOTO: Taj Johnson, 6, hugs his cousin Ishanda Coleman on Dec. 14, the first day of school at Alice Harte Elementary School in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina struck the city.
—Gerald Herbert/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 16, Pages 18,21

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