The long-awaited federal aid for schools damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and for those that took in thousands of students displaced by the devastating storms is finally on the way.
In a rush to complete key votes before the holidays, the Senate on Wednesday night voted 93-to-0 to pass a defense spending bill that included $1.6 billion in hurricane-related aid for public and private schools. The House approved the measure Thursday by unanimous consent.
But the one-year spending measure prompted an outcry among some education groups—even those who have been clamoring for aid to the Gulf Coast—because of its controversial measures for channeling federal aid to private schools affected by the hurricanes as well as to public schools. While some of those procedures for paying out money to private and parochial schools had been included in earlier legislation and discussed, other aspects of the aid appeared to be new.
Joan Schmidt, the president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, said the hurricane measure contained “a private school voucher program under the guise of hurricane relief.”
The federal aid includes $750 million for schools that were directly affected by the hurricanes. But, unlike proposals discussed earlier this year, this plan flows more federal financial aid to private and parochial schools. And the formula it uses to do so would dole out the money to damaged schools without regard to the number of students who attended the schools.
That means small private schools could get a windfall, leaving equally damaged public schools with higher enrollments gasping, said Kim Anderson, a lobbyist for the Washington-based National Education Association. Ms. Anderson called the private-school language in the bill “offensive” and said “this was never contemplated in the earlier proposals that were floating around.”
Though observers were still picking their way through the language of the bill on Thursday, it appears that the money will be divided between public and private schools based on how many there are of each type in the state, said Mary Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators. For example, if 20 percent of all schools in a state are private, then 20 percent of the relief funds will be set aside for the private schools, she said. “There’s no equity in terms of students or size of facility,” she said.
The American Federation of Teachers voiced its objections as well. In a Dec. 21 letter to senators opposing the hurricane measure, Kristor W. Cowan, a lobbyist for the Washington-based AFT, wrote that his organization was “deeply concerned that because of a flawed funding methodology, nonpublic schools would receive a disproportionate share” of hurricane aid.
But Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said relief will flow to private schools through their states. Private schools must submit their purchase requests to states, which, in turn, will use the federal money to buy what is needed. Also, she said, if the money set aside for private schools is not used within a certain time limit, it reverts back to the pot of money set aside for public schools, she said.
Clint Bolick, the president and general counsel of the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice, praised the bill’s evenhandedness, calling it a “victory for children over special interest groups.”
Also included in the measure is $645 million in hurricane aid for schools across the country that have taken in displaced students. Schools will receive $6,000 per general-education student or $7,500 per student in special education. This provision is similar to one that passed the Senate in November through a plan developed by a bipartisan group that included Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and its ranking Democrat, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Private schools will receive their portion of the money through local school districts. Parents with hurricane-displaced students attending private schools will be required to contact the public school district in which their private school is located in order for the private school to be reimbursed.
Chairman Boehner praised the measure, saying it will help all schools that need hurricane aid. “This agreement reflects our key priorities for relief: streamlining bureaucracy, allowing full participation by public, private, and charter schools, and targeting relief based on individual students,” he said in a statement Dec. 19, after a preliminary House vote on the plan.
But some groups are particularly concerned because this portion of the law does not place restrictions on the use of federal dollars by the schools, particularly when it comes to religious instruction. It also does not waive religious schools’ federally protected rights to discriminate on the basis of religion when hiring staff members.
“This program throws open the door to using taxpayer dollars to fund private schools,” said Ralph G. Neas, the president of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group based in Washington. “It also allows for government funding of religion and religious discrimination. We deeply regret its passage.”
The measure also includes $5 million for homeless education programs, and allows displaced teachers who had already achieved “highly qualified” status in their states to get the same designation for one year in the states to which they moved following the storms. Such status is required for most teachers under the No Child Left Behind Act by the end of this school year. The measure also waives income and documentation requirements for children affected by the hurricanes who want to participate in Head Start and early Head Start programs.
As groups in Washington traded opposing viewpoints on the hurricane-relief package, Gulf Coast officials such as Mississippi State Superintendent of Education Hank M. Bounds said that coastal school districts and communities in his state remained desperate for aid.
Several coastal school districts will run out of money in early 2006 and may be forced to shut down temporarily without federal dollars to help meet their payrolls, Mr. Bounds said. Most storm-impacted districts have exhausted their reserves to clean flooded schools and reopen campuses that were not completely destroyed.
“We were saying to everyone immediately after the storm that we absolutely had to have help by the first of the year, and now two weeks before the first of the year, I’m still saying we absolutely have to have help by the first of the year,” Mr. Bounds said on the afternoon of Dec. 21.
Before the final votes on the hurricane-relief measure, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, made several trips to Washington to lobby for school aid, Mr. Bounds said. The state superintendent added that he had made several visits to Capitol Hill himself and met with every member of Congress from Mississippi or members of their staffs to seek help with the relief package.
Mr. Bounds did not have any strong views on whether private schools should qualify for some of the relief. “We need help. I just don’t have time to debate it,” he said of the aid for private schools. “We need immediate help.”
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings praised the measure and pledged to get it to those in need as quickly as possible, using streamlined operations. “The U.S. Department of Education,” she said in a statement Dec. 22, “will expedite delivery of this aid to where it’s needed.”
Staff Writer Alan Richard contributed to this story.