Federal

Hurricane Aid is on the Way to Districts, Private Schools

By Erik W. Robelen & Michelle R. Davis — January 10, 2006 7 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education last week sent out the first installment—more than $250 million—in education aid to states affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, just days after President Bush signed the measure into law.

The $1.6 billion relief package has drawn fire from some education groups because it provides aid not just for public schools, but also for private schools, both to help get damaged schools up and running and to pay tuition costs of displaced students. (“Congress Passes Hurricane Aid for Schools,” Jan. 4, 2006.)

But at least some public school officials said they weren’t troubled about the inclusion of private schools, and they expressed relief that the federal government was finally delivering on the long-debated aid package.

“We were very excited that Congress passed it and the president signed it,” said Terry R. Abbott, a spokesman for the 210,000-student Houston Independent School District. “We’re not concerned,” he said, about the legislation’s tuition-voucher element, which critics have called a troubling and unprecedented federal expansion of private school choice.

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Mr. Abbott noted that, with some 6,000 Katrina evacuees attending schools there, Houston had taken in more students than any other district outside Louisiana.

“Overall, we’re very happy about the package itself,” said Elizabeth C. Scioneaux, the director of the Louisiana Department of Education’s division of education finance. “I think that because we worked so hard on the front end, … [the aid] should flow pretty swiftly.”

Questions remain, however, about whether Congress allotted enough money for the portion of the legislation that reimburses schools that have taken in students uprooted by the storms that hit the Gulf Coast in August and September.

With $645 million reserved for that purpose, some observers worry that the amount of per-pupil aid actually distributed will drop below the maximum level of $6,000 per student ($7,500 for students with disabilities) spelled out in the law.

A senior Education Department official conceded last week that concerns about such shortfalls may prove justified.

“Congress only appropriated $645 million,” said Hudson La Force, the assistant secretary for planning, who has spent much of his time in recent months working as part of the department’s hurricane “strike team.” “That’s not enough to cover the full $6,000 for every displaced student.”

‘Fair and Equitable’

President Bush signed the Hurricane Recovery Education Act on Dec. 30, after a last-minute scramble by Congress before Christmas to finish the legislation, which in the end was attached to a defense spending bill.

During a Jan. 5 conference call with reporters, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings indicated that her department was sending some of the aid that day to the four states directly hit by the hurricanes.

Both Louisiana and Mississippi were to receive $100 million each, while Texas would get $50 million and $3.75 million would go to Alabama.

“We are most anxious to get these resources on the ground,” Ms. Spellings said. “Obviously, there are going to be additional resources forthcoming, but we wanted to make sure we had some needed funds flowing as soon as possible.”

Highlights of the Hurricane Education Recovery Act

    Signed into law Dec. 30 by President Bush, the measure allocates $1.4 billion to help school districts hit by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita rebuild and to help districts that took in students displaced by the storms. The law appropriates:

    $750 million in restart money to Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama for districts and schools directly affected by the hurricanes. The federal Department of Education will immediately provide $100 million each to Louisiana and Mississippi, $50 million to Texas, and $3.75 million to Alabama. A portion of the money each state receives must be reserved for aid to private schools. If 20 percent of the K-12 schools in a state are private schools, 20 percent of that state’s federal hurricane funds must be set aside for such schools.

    $645 million for schools across the country that have taken in students displaced by the hurricanes. The law says public and private schools should receive $6,000 per student in regular education and $7,500 per special education student. If a private school’s tuition is less than those amounts, the school will receive only its own tuition amount. Parents of a displaced student attending a private school must alert the local school district; payment will be made to the school through the public district.

    $5 million for programs that serve homeless students under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The money can be used for transporting such students, school supplies, and mental health treatment among other expenditures.

    SOURCE: Education Week

    The aid measure includes money both to help schools that have taken in students displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as funds to help public and private schools in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas get restarted. Shortly after the storms, federal officials estimated that 372,000 K-12 and college students were displaced by the hurricanes. More updated figures were not available last week, although some displaced students are believed to be in almost every state.

    The aid for displaced students will go out to states in quarterly payments, based on enrollment figures for such students. Payments to private schools will be made through the local school districts where the private school are located. Parents of displaced students attending private schools must alert the districts, which will then make the payments, Mr. La Force said.

    By late this month, the states must provide counts of displaced students to the federal government. The aid package provides $750 million to help restart both public and nonpublic schools damaged by Katrina or Rita. The aid could be used for such purposes as the recovery of student data and the replacement of lost instructional materials. It may not be used, however, for repairing school buildings. The money that was distributed last week came from that spending pot.

    The law requires that a portion of that federal money be set aside for private schools. For example, if 20 percent of a state’s schools are private, 20 percent of the state’s federal restart money will have to be set aside for private schools.

    Private schools must tell the state what they want to use the money for, and the state, or a third party, will make the purchases. If the money set aside for private schools is not used within 120 days, states can use that money to assist public schools.

    Stretching Aid

    The way the law divvies up the aid has some public education advocates upset. They argue that too much has been set aside for private schools without regard to student enrollment figures. But Joe McTighe, the executive director of the Council for American Private Education, a Germantown, Md.-based lobbying coalition of private school groups, said he believes the package is fair to both public and private schools.

    “We thought from the beginning that this is a hurricane that affected all schools and students alike,” he said.

    “The states are eager to do this in a fair and equitable manner,” added Joseph Conaty, the director of academic improvement and teacher quality programs at the Education Department, who also participated in the Jan. 5 conference call. “The applicant has to describe to the state the number of children that are being served, the severity of the damage, and the needs.”

    Another concern with the law is that Congress may not have provided enough money to ensure full payments for schools that took in displaced students.

    “[Lawmakers] decreased significantly the amount of money to be available for schools taking in displaced students,” said Marc Egan, the director of federal affairs for the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va. “If you spread that out over possibly 300,000 students, that money may not stretch that far.”

    “The reduction was made by appropriators,” said Craig Orfield, a spokesman for Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. “My understanding was that the consensus among the Gulf State senators was that it was far more important to focus funding on the restart efforts as opposed to the overall reimbursement.”

    When the legislation first passed the Senate in November, the total for the package was nearly $1.7 billion, but far more, some $1.2 billion, was reserved to reimburse schools for taking in displaced students.

    Mr. Orfield added, “That being said, Senator Enzi is confident that we’ve provided adequate resources and he’s pleased with the outcome.”

    Chad Colby, an Education Department spokesman, said it was too soon to know how many students would be covered by the displaced-student provision.

    “Based on the initial estimate [of displaced students], there wouldn’t be enough money, but we’re not going to guess that before we know from the states how many students we’ll actually have reported,” Mr. Colby said.

    Added Mr. Conaty of the department: “These students are still moving and still relocating.”

    ‘The Voucher Wars’

    What the legislation may mean for the future of private school vouchers in Congress, meanwhile, was still the subject of debate last week.

    “More generally in the voucher wars, we hope that this will prove to be a milestone,” said Clint Bolick, the president of the Phoenix, Ariz.-based Alliance for School Choice and a strong proponent of vouchers.

    “There definitely are legislators who voted for this … on the basis that it was a one-time, limited program,” he said. “But the point is that the word ‘never’ has been replaced by the word ‘rarely,’ and ‘rarely’ is a step on the road to ‘sometimes.’ ”

    “The overarching issue is whether or not the money that is going to follow the students is a precursor to vouchers,” said G. Thomas Houlihan, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington. “I personally don’t think so.”

    Mr. Orfield, the spokesman for Sen. Enzi, agreed.

    “[Senator Enzi] doesn’t view it as a precedent,” Mr. Orfield said. “He has consistently avoided vouchers in the past.”

    Brian Richardson, a spokesman for Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who pushed hard for the aid package, said “voucher” was the wrong word in this circumstance.

    “To politicize this one event on either side for or against vouchers would, I think, … be a mistake,” Mr. Richardson said. “This is not a voucher program. This is a one-time case where there are students from public and private schools who have had to go to other schools, both public and private. … You have to look at the entire picture here.”

    But Mr. Egan of the NSBA saw the matter differently.

    “Some have gone out of their way to explain this away as something else, but it clearly is a voucher program,” he said. “From our perspective, vouchers are bad public policy, and the flaws that remain in vouchers are unfortunately included in this new program.”

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