Bill Would Alter Hurricane Aid for Private Schools

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A Senate-approved measure that includes new funding for districts educating students displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita would change the controversial mechanism under which private schools receive some of those funds.

The bill, which would provide $350 million to educate students who remain displaced next school year, is part of a broader, $109 billion emergency-spending bill to finance the war in Iraq and Gulf Coast hurricane recovery that passed the Senate 78-20 on May 4.

Under the pending legislation, private schools that have taken in hurricane evacuees would still be able to get federal reimbursement, but under a system different from the one prescribed in the Hurricane Education Recovery Act, signed by President Bush last December. ("Senate Backs Additional Hurricane Aid for Schools," May 10, 2006.)

That law authorized $645 million in “impact aid” to cover the costs of educating displaced students, including $6,000 for each general education student and $7,500 for each student in special education. State officials currently estimate that the amount will be closer to $4,000 per student.

The law calls for money for displaced students in private schools to be distributed on a per-pupil basis from the states and school districts directly to the schools. The private schools are getting about $4,000 per displaced student this year, just as public schools are.

When the hurricane law was passed, some lawmakers, including Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and the National Education Association, among other groups, decried the private school provisions as amounting to a national voucher program.

In response to such concerns, the money added by the Senate for next school year would go to districts. Private schools, instead of receiving a set per-pupil amount, would be reimbursed for services or supplies they actually provided to their hurricane-displaced students.

Some private school advocates are worried that the proposed system might not cover all of their expenses or could prove too bureaucratic, delaying needed dollars.

“We have a lot of questions about whether this is going to work well,” said the Rev. William F. Davis, the deputy secretary for schools at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.

One Year Only

Ryan Taylor, a spokesman for Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, who was instrumental in drafting the new language, said it was never the senator’s intention to renew the contentious funding mechanism in the original law.

“The funding commitment to the schools that took in displaced students was a one-time, temporary payment in light of the unprecedented disaster,” Mr. Taylor said. “In crafting this agreement, it was essential that this funding be limited to one year, so that it would not become a voucher.”

The change “will ensure that schools that take in displaced students are compensated, without creating a voucher system,” he said.

Reg Weaver, the president of the NEA, praised the Senate for revising the program.

“Some lawmakers took advantage of the disaster caused by the hurricanes to push their own political agenda,” Mr. Weaver said in a statement. “The federal voucher program offered aid to students with one hand, and took money from underfunded public schools with the other.”

The Senate bill must still be reconciled in a conference committee with the House version of the supplemental-spending measure for the war and hurricane recovery, which does not contain any new impact-aid money. House members championing the funding say that it may be difficult to persuade budget-conscious lawmakers to approve extending the impact-aid program.

PHOTO: Students return to Archbishop Chapelle Catholic High School in Metairie, La., last October. A Senate bill would alter the system for reimbursing private schools serving displaced students.
—File photo by LM Otero/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 37, Page 24

Published in Print: May 17, 2006, as Bill Would Alter Hurricane Aid for Private Schools
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