Democrats Seek Education Dept. ‘Recovery Czar’

Spellings says her agency lacks construction expertise.

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As congressional Democrats declared last week that federal efforts to help Gulf Coast schools with hurricane recovery aren’t working, school officials from the region hit by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year urged lawmakers to provide more regulatory flexibility and more money.

On April 26, House Democrats released a report criticizing the Bush administration’s efforts to aid hurricane-affected schools and colleges. They said the Department of Education should name an “education recovery czar” to take responsibility away from the Federal Emergency Management Agency because of what they see as its floundering record.

Doris Voitier, the superintendent of Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish school district, holds a photo of a student affected by Hurricane Katrina during a House hearing.
Doris Voitier, the superintendent of Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish school district, holds a photo of a student affected by Hurricane Katrina during a House hearing.
—Christopher Powers/Education Week

“Common sense would dictate that the U.S. Department of Education—an agency with experience and expertise in dealing with the education community—should have been given primary responsibility for education recovery,” Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said at a news conference on Capitol Hill.

He blasted FEMA for giving out “contradictory guidance” and displaying a “near-total unwillingness to give local educators the flexibility they need to rebuild and reopen their schools quickly and efficiently.” ("Dealing With FEMA Is Schools’ Latest Trial," April 26, 2006)

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in an interview last week that she appreciated the vote of confidence from Democrats, but said her department’s role was separate from FEMA’s.

“We don’t have expertise at the Department of Education to do school construction,” she said. “We’ve got our hands full at the moment with closing the achievement gap and having everybody proficient by 2014.”

The Democrats’ report also recommends additional flexibility, for example allowing schools recovering from the hurricanes to transfer funds between programs. And it calls for providing additional funding to those schools for basic operations and rebuilding.

Hurricanes’ Aftermath

The House education committee held a hearing the same day to receive input on the progress of efforts to repair school buildings and educate displaced students in the aftermath of Katrina, which struck in late August, and Rita, which hit a month later.

Douglas Chance, the superintendent of the Cameron Parish school district in Louisiana, which had 1,850 students before the storms, said that his area was ground zero for Hurricane Rita, and that 62 percent of his school buildings were significantly damaged. But by adopting a 7:30 a.m.-to-5 p.m. school day and using extensive busing, picking up students living as far as 60 miles away, students started coming back. As of January, 82 percent of his district’s students were back, Mr. Chance said.

Although the district has done some rebuilding, he said that in the future, the federal government needs to clarify what recovery services are available, how they can be used and how to get them, maintain a stable FEMA workforce, be flexible on timelines for putting out bids, and provide additional financial resources.

Several Gulf Coast education officials said that cash flow was a major problem. Though Congress has approved $750 million in so-called “restart aid” for damaged districts and $645 million in “impact aid” for districts that took in displaced students, much of that money has not yet reached the local level, officials said.

Jim Nelson, the superintendent of the Richardson Independent School District in Richardson, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, still has about 790 displaced students among his district’s 34,000 students.

Congress had pledged to repay such schools up to $6,000 per student and $7,500 per special education student. But the reality is that the total payments will likely be closer to $3,000 per student, Mr. Nelson said. His district has had to put much of its efforts and money into special tutoring and services for hurricane-displaced students, who were often years behind in their educational progress, he said.

“To say that it put stress on our district is an understatement,” said Mr. Nelson, who also expressed worries about the long-term impact of such students on his district’s ability to meet the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The Rev. William Maestri, the superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, told the committee that a new level of cooperation has bloomed among schools in his area, but that it needs to be nurtured. And private schools need to play a role when it comes to federal aid, he said.

“There’s a need for partnerships between public and private schools,” Father Maestri said. “We need to change our way of thinking.”

‘Our Best Efforts’

Some witnesses complained that FEMA has been unwilling to provide money upfront to damaged districts whose tax bases were largely swept away by the hurricanes.

Doris Voitier, the superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish school district near New Orleans, said she’s struggling to find ways to use the federal restart money she has received, but has been unable to buy much-needed textbooks, school instruments, or library books because the aid would then be in conflict with what FEMA is helping to pay for.

“Give us the flexibility of spending these funds, and judge us on the outcome,” she said. During her testimony, Ms. Voitier held up large pictures of students in her district, ranging from preschool to high school age, and told lawmakers about their daily struggles. “These children deserve our best efforts,” she said.

Ms. Voitier, like other educators from the region, called for FEMA to be more flexible. She said that right after Hurricane Katrina hit eight months ago, she was told by FEMA officials that it would take six months to find and construct temporary school quarters. On her own, she called around and got a portable school building in place and operable in about three weeks, she said.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the education panel, acknowledged that there have been problems with the federal hurricane response, but he said there have also been successes.

“Looking back months later, it’s no secret that there have been many bumps in the road,” he said during the hearing. “Difficulties have been well documented, and constructive criticism has been appropriately delivered—all with the hope and the expectation that we have learned valuable lessons along the way.”

In response to the Democrats’ report on federal failings in the hurricane response, Steve Forde, a spokesman for Republicans on the House education committee, said the suggestion to create a new post within the Education Department to work on schools’ recovery would slow the process even further.

“Adding more government when government itself seems to be the problem is illogical and counterintuitive,” he said.

Vol. 25, Issue 34, Pages 27, 29

Published in Print: May 3, 2006, as Democrats Seek Education Dept. ‘Recovery Czar’
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