The Bush administration is proposing up to $1.9 billion in federal aid to help school districts and charter schools that are enrolling some of the 300,000-plus students displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
In addition, it is proposing as much as $488 million for evacuated families to pay private or religious school tuition, in essence creating a big new school voucher program. The vouchers would be worth up to $7,500, and made available during the 2005-06 school year.
“We’re obviously doing something in the federal government that we’ve never done before,” Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said of the initiative in a conference call from Houston on Sept. 16.
“We’re going from 9 to 90 percent” in federal aid to public schools, she added.
The aid for public schools would assist in paying for increased costs associated with displaced students, such as teachers salaries, transportation, materials and equipment, and counseling, according to a Department of Education fact sheet.
The Sept. 16 announcement from the Education Department came one day after President Bush addressed the nation to discuss recovery plans.
“Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives,” the president said in a Sept. 15 speech from Jackson Square in New Orleans.
For Louisiana and Mississippi, the public school aid would go to the state, rather than directly to school districts, the department said. Those states would have the flexibility to divide the money be-tween districts enrolling displaced students and districts within the heavily affected areas that are working to quickly reopen schools.
‘A Very Unique Time’
The public school aid would be granted to districts based on the number of displaced students en-rolled multiplied by up to 90 percent of the state’s average per-pupil expenditure for education. The maximum payment would be $7,500 per child. The money would go out quarterly over this school year.
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Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., praised the proposed aid to public schools but criticized the idea of paying for private school tuition.
“This is not the time for a partisan political debate on vouchers,” he said in a statement.
Ms. Spellings responded, “I think this is a very unique time.”
She noted that in New Orleans, about as many students attend private and parochial schools as public schools.
The Education Department estimates that of the 187,000 Louisiana students in four of the state’s severely affected parishes, including New Orleans, about one-third, or 61,000, were attending private schools. Nationally, 11 percent of students are enrolled in private schools.
The federal tuition aid would be available for families displaced by the hurricane whether their children had previously attended a public or private school, an Education Department spokeswoman said.
Ms. Spellings made clear that the public and private aid was meant to be temporary.
“Our intention is that this is a one-year situation to respond to the immediate crisis at hand,” she said.
Meanwhile, education officials in the hurricane-devastated states and the states taking in evacuees were still scrambling to determine whether they would be held accountable for all the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Ms. Spellings said earlier in the week that the Department of Education was offering the “maximum flexibility around operations” to affected districts.
Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said that some laws don’t allow for waivers of their requirements, and that language might have to be added to those laws to permit flexibility.
Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, said federal politicians were struggling to keep hurricane-affected schools and districts from being penalized, but also to stay on track with the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. The law calls for schools and districts to meet annual educational goals or face consequences.
“We’re looking at a way to keep everybody’s nose to the grindstone on [adequate yearly progress] and accountability,” Mr. Miller said, “but how do we temper this influx of students, because we don’t … want people to start thinking the exception is bigger than the law?”
Meanwhile, lawmakers introduced a laundry list of bills last week that include hurricane- related education assistance. On Sept. 14, Reps. Ruben Hinojosa and Eddie Bernice Johnson, both Texas Democrats, introduced a bill that would authorize the Education Department to provide to school districts $8,305—the nation’s average per-pupil expenditure—for each student they take in who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
In a Sept. 14 letter to Congress, the National School Boards Association said the next federal supplemental-aid package should include direct and immediate help to districts and an $8,500-per-pupil payment to schools taking in evacuees.
As of late last week, Louisiana officials had requested $2.4 billion from Congress to pay for teacher salaries and benefits.
Mississippi State Superintendent of Education Hank M. Bounds, meanwhile, asked Congress for $3 billion in federal aid for immediate help with school rebuilding and other economic hardships caused by the hurricane.
“Communities aren’t going to rebound until schools rebound,” Mr. Bounds said in an interview.
Separately last week, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, introduced a bill that would allow funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be used to pay education expenses for students affected by Hurricane Katrina. FEMA has told state education officials that its emergency money can’t be used for expenses such as additional textbooks and teachers, and instead must be spent on transportation, portable buildings, and mental-health counselors.
‘A Starting Point’
Education officials in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama—the three states taking the biggest hit from the hurricane late last month—worry that with many schools closed and in tatters, and many of their students scattered across the country, they won’t be able to make their targets for adequate progress under the NCLB law. They are seeking waivers on a number of fronts, as is Texas, which has taken in thousands of student evacuees.
Officials of both Mississippi and Texas wrote letters to Secretary Spellings earlier this month requesting waivers under the federal law.
Mississippi asked for a relaxation of the federal requirements on AYP and for “highly qualified” teachers, among other items. In a Sept. 12 letter to Mr. Bounds, Ms. Spellings said she could grant some of the requests but would not grant others at this stage.
“As you know, AYP is the linchpin of the No Child Left Behind accountability system, and I am reluctant to waive AYP for now,” Ms. Spellings wrote. She asked for more information on Mississippi’s specific needs for waivers on highly qualified teachers and other rules under the law.
The secretary authorized Mississippi to use federal Title I money in any way that schools need to deal with the emergency, however. And she said that states do not need waivers for flexibility on some other requests.
She said Congress must grant the Education Department the authority to allow for changes on other rules, such as federal law regarding the education of homeless students.
Mr. Bounds, the Mississippi state chief, said he had not studied the secretary’s answers to his waiver requests and had little response to them.
But he appeared to back away from earlier statements that Mississippi would entirely suspend standardized testing and the state’s school accountability law for the 2005-06 school year.
Meanwhile, in a Sept. 14 letter to state schools chiefs, Ms. Spellings called charter schools “uniquely equipped” to serve displaced students. She said she would waive some charter school requirements to help such schools enroll and educate those students.
Louisiana officials said last week they would make their own requests to the department, including that AYP calculations be made only for students who have been in the same school for two years, and that free tutoring for students be substituted for the law’s transfer option for children in schools needing improvement, since transferring is no longer an option in many areas.
“This list will not be the endgame,” Louisiana state schools Superintendent Cecil J. Picard said in a statement. “It is just a starting point for us that will require a lot of follow-up.”
Some education policy observers questioned any state’s attempt to delay testing and school accountability requirements.
Kati Haycock, the founder and director of the Washington-based Education Trust, which supports the No Child Left Behind Act, said last week that she realized storm-damaged states would need some flexibility under the law. But she cautioned against complete relaxation of its standards, saying that such a move threatened the quality of the education students would receive this year.
The “worst possible thing you could do is … hug them and not teach them,” she said of children displaced by the storm.
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2005 edition of Education Week as Bush Proposes Evacuee Aid for Districts, School Vouchers