School Choice & Charters

La. Agency OKs Storm Aid for Private Schools

By Erik W. Robelen — January 19, 2007 3 min read
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The Louisiana Recovery Authority has approved a plan to make private schools, colleges, and universities eligible for up to $40 million in federal aid to help repair the damage they suffered from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

About $10 million of the total would go to private precollegiate schools in the state, under a plan approved Jan. 12 by the authority, a state body created by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco in the wake of the 2005 hurricanes.

The plan still must be approved by the state legislature, the governor, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, though such approval is expected. State officials allocated $200 million in similar assistance for public schools in Louisiana late last summer.

The Rev. William F. Maestri, the superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, said he was pleased that nonpublic schools would be eligible for the aid.

Earlier last year, he said, it was unclear whether private schools would get a share of the assistance, which aims to supplement other sources of reconstruction aid, principally insurance and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Fearing private schools might not get any of the aid, the archdiocese sought to pressure the recovery authority to give them a portion.

“Initially, I was not able to get any information … as to whether or not we would be able to apply for those funds,” Father Maestri said. “In the midst of that, I felt it necessary to call a press conference and indicate my deep displeasure with that, frankly.”

“I was not asking for special treatment,” he added. “I was asking for equal treatment.”

The money comes from the federal Community Development Block Grant program, and will go to private, nonprofit schools that are eligible for aid from FEMA. The funds are designed to cover the 10 percent local match for repair costs that FEMA does not pay on storm damage.

‘A Fantastic Job’

Ramsey J. Green, the education policy director for the recovery authority, said the state body has struggled to balance many interests amid the storms’ devastation.

“There are a pile of vital needs out there,” he said. “We recognize that private schools are a huge part of southern Louisiana. … They have an enrollment in New Orleans right now about or more than public school enrollment.”

He added, “The private schools, after the storm, took on students from public schools, instructed them. … They have done a fantastic job.”

Mr. Green says the recovery authority is hoping to get further federal assistance with reconstruction efforts.

“We’re definitely going to be asking for additional CDBG funds for every need, whether it’s schools, government buildings, nonprofit organizations,” he said, “because the needs continue to mount.”

Mr. Green estimates that nonpublic schools incurred about $500 million in damages, with the vast majority being covered by FEMA.

The private school aid is part of a larger package of support the authority has recommended that includes money for the repair of state buildings, the construction of a teaching hospital, and assistance for local government efforts to remove debris.

‘Road to Recovery’

The New Orleans Archdiocese estimates a funding gap of $7.8 million for school repair work, after taking into account insurance, assistance from FEMA, and private donations.

The archdiocese serves eight parishes—similar to counties in other states—in southeast Louisiana.

Before the hurricanes hit in August and September of 2005, the archdiocese operated 107 schools serving some 50,000 students in the greater New Orleans area, Father Maestri said. As of last week, he said, it had reopened 88 schools, serving 44,000 children.

Louisiana has a higher concentration of students enrolled in private schools than the nation as a whole.

For the 2004-05 year, about 16 percent of Louisiana’s more than 861,000 precollegiate students attended nonpublic schools. The national average for 2004 was about 10 percent.

“Schools are the road to recovery for our children,” Father Maestri said. “It does not matter who provides the education, whether it is public, private, religious.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2007 edition of Education Week as La. Agency OKs Storm Aid for Private Schools

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