Federal

Cuts Weighed to Pay for Hurricane Relief

By Michelle R. Davis — October 18, 2005 4 min read
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Congressional Republicans have proposed cutting some education programs to free up federal money for hurricane relief for schools. But Congress didn’t get any closer last week to approving a federal aid plan, so school districts continue to wait for such aid to flow to their schools.

Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, this month proposed eliminating 14 Department of Education programs—not just declining to fund them, but repealing them outright. The $250 million in funding for the same programs was eliminated in the fiscal 2006 appropriations bill for the Education Department that the House passed in June. A press release from Republicans on the House education panel called the programs, which range from literacy instruction for prisoners to arts in education, inefficient and duplicative.

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“We have a responsibility to help those in need in the aftermath of two devastating hurricanes, but we also have a responsibility to cut unnecessary federal spending elsewhere to pay for it,” Rep. Boehner said in a statement. Though Mr. Boehner’s cuts would be significant, they would barely make a dent in the billions of dollars being proposed for hurricane-related school aid.

Congress has passed $62 billion in general federal hurricane relief, but none of that money has been allocated specifically for schools. Though several lawmakers have proposed bills that would provide direct school aid, those bills hadn’t made much progress as of last week.

Bush Plan Introduced

Last week Sens. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the former chairman of the Senate education committee, and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the committee’s ranking minority member, proposed creating a new federal agency to oversee hurricane rebuilding, including education efforts.

And in the House on Oct. 7, Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, introduced a bill modeled on an education relief package President Bush announced last month. The Hurricane Education Assistance Act includes nearly $1.9 billion for school districts taking in more than 10 students displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The bill proposes to provide public schools with as much as 90 percent of their states’ per-pupil expenditures, to a maximum of $7,500 per student. The bill also calls for $488 million that could be used by parents who want to send their children to secular or religious private schools, with the same $7,500 limit.

The same day, Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, introduced a bill that would provide up to $8.2 billion for one year to public schools damaged by the hurricanes, including charter schools. Some of the money would be for direct aid to schools so they could rebuild facilities and pay teachers and other staff members. It would also provide $8,314 per student to districts taking in students displaced by the hurricanes and provide money for after-school programs serving those children.

As Republicans looked for education cuts, Democrats in Congress pressed hard for immediate aid to schools affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, particularly for those in the storm-damaged states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas. Districts were closed, schools were damaged or destroyed, and thousands of students were displaced by the August and September storms on the Gulf Coast.

In a late-night floor speech on Oct. 6, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., urged lawmakers to pass direct aid for hurricane-ravaged states before leaving for a weeklong recess. She requested that $15 billion of the money already approved be used for schools.

“Please don’t abandon the people of Louisiana again, the people of Mississippi again, and the people of Alabama again by leaving before we do something to help them in a direct and concrete manner,” she said.

But Congress left town for a Columbus Day recess that lasted all last week without taking final action on any aid plan for schools.

Rep. Boehner’s proposed elimination of 14 programs includes the $42 million Parental Information and Resource Centers, which help educate parents about their rights under the No Child Left Behind Act; the $35.6 million Arts in Education program; and $21.8 million in state grants for incarcerated youths.

To groups like the Council of Chief State School Officers, the proposed cuts would go too deep.

“We understand the budget issues that are facing Congress, but we’re alarmed that the ongoing debate is about cutting education funding,” said Scott S. Montgomery, the Washington-based group’s chief of staff.

The Budget Resolution

Most of the programs proposed for elimination by Mr. Boehner are funded in the fiscal 2006 appropriations bill for education awaiting a vote by the full Senate, said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the 2.7 million-member National Education Association. The likelihood that the programs will actually be eliminated is slim, he said.

“A lot of the programs that could potentially be cut are related to those [programs] that need increases to help victims of the hurricane,” he said. “It seems counterproductive to say let’s provide more aid to education, and then cut it.”

House Republican leaders, including the Budget Committee’s chairman, Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa, have also proposed reopening the fiscal 2006 budget resolution passed earlier this year, which provides an outline for funding mandatory programs, and making severe cuts there.

“That’s a huge concern for us,” said Tom Kiley, a spokesman for the House education committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. George Miller of California. “We would strongly oppose” reopening the budget resolution and making significant cuts there, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as Cuts Weighed to Pay for Hurricane Relief

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