Relief Plans Spurring Debate Over Vouchers

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Washington is a safe distance from the powerful winds that have been wreaking havoc on the Gulf Coast, but a political storm continued to brew in the capital last week over President Bush’s plan to help pay the costs of private school tuition for students displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

As voucher opponents decried the president’s plan, Louisiana’s two U.S. senators stepped forward late last week with an alternative proposal that would sidestep the voucher issue by providing direct aid to both public and private schools, religious or secular. The wide-ranging Katrina-relief package would provide $4,000 to public and private schools for each displaced student they take in, as well as other educational aid.

“The senator does not believe in vouchers,” said Brian Richardson, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Democrat, who sponsored the package with Sen. David Vitter, a Republican. “These are not vouchers.”

Meanwhile, some longtime voucher opponents, including leading Democrats and major education groups, have attacked Mr. Bush’s proposal to create a one-year program that would underwrite up to $7,500 of a family’s per-child tuition costs at a secular or religious private school.

“It opens up a fight they didn’t need to have,” Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said of the Bush administration last week. “The administration is seeing an opportunity to put in an ideological proposal.”

But U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings defended the voucher component of President Bush’s plan during her annual back-to-school speech in Washington on Sept. 21.

“This was a hurricane that affected every family, including those in private schools,” she said. “This is a temporary situation, a one-year relief-aid package. It’s going to be narrowly focused.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education called for making up to $488 million available to compensate displaced families who wish to send their children to private schools. The aid would not be limited to students who previously attended nonpublic schools.

The agency also wants to provide nearly $2 billion to public schools, covering 90 percent of the per-pupil costs, up to a ceiling of $7,500, for schools that accept displaced students. ("Bush Proposes Evacuee Aid for Districts, School Vouchers," Sept. 21, 2005.)

Details of the plan were not yet available as of late last week.

‘People in Need’

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, was among those embracing the Bush plan.

“Katrina did not discriminate among children and neither should we,” Sen. Alexander, a former secretary of education, said in a Sept. 20 floor speech.

The proposal was also welcomed by Sister Mary Michaeline, the superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge, who estimates her Louisiana school system has grown from 16,000 students to about 20,000 since Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29.

“These are children who are hurting from this storm, and whose parents are taxpayers,” she said.

The federal Department of Education estimates that of the 187,000 students in the four hardest-hit Louisiana parishes, including New Orleans, about a third were in private schools before Katrina forced mass evacuations. Nationwide, 11 percent of students are enrolled in private schools.

But Mr. Houston of the AASA, based in Arlington, Va., argues that the focus right now should be on helping public schools. It is those schools, he said, that are taking in most of the student evacuees, including some who had attended private schools. And he suggested that the Bush plan would not provide nearly enough aid for public schools.

Dianne Piché, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, an advocacy group in Washington, said any voucher program should be limited to those in financial need. Her concern was that better-off families would be more likely than poorer ones to use the aid.

She also questioned providing up to $7,500 per student. “They’re not capping it at the Catholic school level” of tuition, she said. “They’re capping it at the country-day-school level.”

Asked whether the Bush administration would consider means-testing the aid, Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said in an e-mail: “We will be developing protections to ensure the money goes to those who need it.”

Andrew J. Rotherham, the co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank, and a former education aide to President Clinton, said that he sees “plenty of room here for a reasonable compromise.”

Although the alternative from the Louisiana senators could circumvent the voucher debate, it may still cause legal headaches, some analysts said.

Sending general aid to religious schools could be a clarion call for anti-voucher lawyers, said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Arlington, Va., office of the Nashville, Tenn.-based First Amendment Center, a nonprofit group that advocates protection of First Amendment rights.

“A voucher approach is safer under the First Amendment,” he said. “It has already been vetted and argued.” The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 upheld a program that allows Cleveland families to use state-funded tuition vouchers at religious schools.

Mr. Haynes added: “It is very problematic to use an emergency to accomplish what has been otherwise impossible under the First Amendment.”

But Clint Bolick, a lawyer who runs the pro-voucher Alliance for Choice in Phoenix, said he believes that general aid to religious schools also could pass constitutional muster.

“[S]o long as the choice of the school has been made by the parent, the courts would find it permissible,” he maintained. “And anyone who would go to court seeking an injunction against such aid ought to be tarred and feathered.”

For his part, Mr. Houston of the AASA, which represents district superintendents, hinted that such an approach might be a workable compromise. “If they were going to talk about supporting the schools directly, my people wouldn’t like that,” he said, “but we wouldn’t make a lot of noise.”

Sens. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman and the ranking minority member, respectively, of the Senate education committee, have co-sponsored a bill to help schools serving Katrina evacuees that includes no vouchers or direct aid for private schools.

But while Mr. Kennedy has been sharply critical of President Bush’s voucher plan, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, another Democrat known to oppose vouchers, said last week that he could support the idea of temporary vouchers, “even though it’s a deviation from what I’ve done in the past.”

Charters in the Mix

On another school choice front, meanwhile, charter schools were making efforts last week to help students displaced by Katrina, but in some cases had hit roadblocks.

The federal Education Department has tried to reach out to charter schools and has promised to grant states waivers of some federal requirements for the independently run public schools, on a case-by-case basis.

Agency officials also said that up to $20 million in federal charter school aid for fiscal 2005 was still available, and that the department would like the aid to help charter schools serve students who have relocated because of Hurricane Katrina.

Nina S. Rees, the assistant deputy secretary for the department’s office of innovation and improvement, said the grant funds were designed to help new charter schools get started, and could be used for such purposes as hiring teachers, providing professional development, and buying books and supplies.

“It’s an ideal pot of money if your idea is to expand or start from scratch,” she said.

States seeking the money have until the end of September to request it, she said. As of last week, however, there had been no applications for that aid tied to Hurricane Katrina.

Normally, any charter school that now receives a grant under the federal program must hold a lottery if more students apply for admission than can be accommodated.

“On our end, we’re allowing them to add additional weight on the evacuees so they have a better chance of getting into a charter school,” Ms. Rees said.

Undue Constraints?

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based group that backs charters and vouchers, said that while charter schools are well positioned to help in emergencies such as Hurricane Katrina, the schools have faced unnecessary constraints.

“These people are pleasant and nice,” she said of state education officials in such states as Louisiana and Texas. “There’s nobody saying, ‘We don’t like charters,’ … but they’re just missing a huge [opportunity].”

She cited, for instance, a Sept. 9 memo from the Texas Education Agency saying charter schools may not exceed their current enrollment caps to take in hurricane evacuees.

“We did flatly say no,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the agency. The state, she said, was concerned about whether students could be adequately served if those caps were lifted. She said Texas charter schools typically operate with less money than regular public schools.

Ms. Ratcliffe said the state has given charter schools “the same consideration” as regular schools since evacuees from areas hard hit by Katrina began streaming into Texas late last month.

Patsy O’Neill, the executive director of the Resource Center for Charter Schools, based in San Antonio, said she believes the state has been “very flexible in working with existing charter operators” since the storm.

Not all of the obstacles facing charters have to do with politics.

The Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP—which runs charter schools across the country—was hoping last week for permission from the Houston school board to use a district building to start what it has dubbed New Orleans Charter School West College Prep. KIPP wanted to start the school almost immediately, using the principal from a new KIPP-run charter school in New Orleans that’s inoperable, and targeting evacuee students for enrollment.

The problem? Hurricane Rita’s approach late last week prompted a mass evacuation of parts of Houston, forcing the San Francisco-based charter network to put its plans for “New Orleans West” on hold.

PHOTO: New Orleans evacuees Teresa Castellon, left, and Brittany Matthews walk behind Elliot Jones at the Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tenn. The boarding school is waiving tuition for displaced students.
—Nina Long/The Tennessean/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 05, Pages 1, 18

Published in Print: September 28, 2005, as Relief Plans Spurring Debate Over Vouchers
Related Stories
Web Resources
  • Review a series of policy letters from U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings outlining federal assistance and waivers granted to those states worst affected by Hurricane Katrina.
  • Read the complete text of Secretary Spellings' September 21 back-to-school address at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C.
  • The Texas Education Agency provides a link to education law and rules in the state as well as answers to FAQs relating to incoming students displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
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