The debate in Congress over the Bush administration’s idea of providing private school vouchers as part of its hurricane-relief efforts is heading in a new direction.
A key lawmaker who had blasted the idea of using federal vouchers to cover the costs of tuition for evacuees in secular and religious private schools has softened his stance, saying he would be amenable to providing that type of emergency aid in a different way.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said he would propose that private schools receive aid on the same basis as public schools through existing programs instead of through a new voucher program.
The debate over how to help private schools continued as Congress weighed various hurricane-relief measures for schools, but lawmakers did not come much closer last week to settling on an approach.
In a Sept. 23 letter to Sister Glenn Anne McPhee, the secretary for education of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in Washington, Sen. Kennedy said that he appreciated the service of Roman Catholic schools, particularly in Louisiana, but that “instead of inventing a new bureaucracy to deliver the aid, we would move the funds quickly through existing mechanisms.”
Sen. Kennedy said he was working with Republicans to draft a plan in which school districts would serve as the “fiscal agents” for distributing the money to private schools, much as they do now under the federal Title I program and under special education programs. Under those programs, private schools educating students who qualify for the federal help receive financial support and guidance through the public schools.
Sister McPhee had chided Sen. Kennedy for his anti-voucher stance. Last month, the Bush administration proposed up to $488 million to compensate families displaced by Hurricane Katrina who wish to send their children to private schools. (“Relief Plans Spurring Debate Over Vouchers,” Sept. 28, 2005)
Sister McPhee said in a Sept. 22 statement that Sen. Kennedy was ignoring the needs of Catholic school students.
“It is at best incredible that the senator who has built his government career on helping the disadvantaged can turn away from them in what may be their hour of greatest need,” she said.
Sen. Kennedy and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the education committee, introduced a bill last month that would authorize a $2.5 billion fund for public schools to help pay for the education of displaced students, but it did not include vouchers or direct aid for private or religious schools.
Sen. Kennedy said his proposal would provide about $3,750 per semester for each displaced student being educated in a secular or religious private school. It remained unclear late last week, though, whether the idea would be added to the pending Enzi-Kennedy bill or be introduced in another way, said Laura Capps, a spokeswoman for Mr. Kennedy.
Sen. Enzi, who in the past has not been supportive of private school vouchers, is discussing the proposal, said his spokesman, Craig Orfield.
Others have concerns about aspects of the Enzi-Kennedy plan. In a Sept. 27 letter to the two senators, the National Governors Association expressed worries about sending federal money directly to school districts, instead of through the states.
Several other bills are pending in Congress that would provide hurricane-related aid to schools.
On Sept. 22, the Senate passed by unanimous consent a bill sponsored by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, that would allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to transfer emergency-relief money for one year from its disaster-relief fund to the secretary of education to cover education expenses for schools teaching displaced students. Such FEMA money currently is typically used for expenses such as building repairs and construction.
A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as Kennedy Backs Hurricane Aid for Private Schools