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Officials Vow Flexibility on Federal Rules

September 01, 2005 2 min read

Top federal education officials pledged last week that they would streamline bureaucratic processes for states and school districts affected by Hurricane Katrina.

They said they would waive requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act as necessary, for example, as they reached out to state leaders to determine their needs.

“You can be assured that the red tape will be put in the drawer,” said Raymond J. Simon, the deputy U.S. secretary of education. “We know we have statutory authority … to grant waivers for occurrences such as this.”

Mr. Simon and other U.S. Department of Education officials offered few details during an Aug. 31 conference call with reporters, but made clear they stood ready to offer states various types of support in dealing with huge numbers of displaced students and destroyed or damaged schools.

Mr. Simon and Henry L. Johnson, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, personally called each of the state chiefs in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

“We’ve really asked them to tell us what their needs are right now,” Mr. Simon said.

Mr. Simon said the department would offer substantial flexibility to those states, both for districts that have sustained direct damage from the hurricane and those that take in large numbers of displaced students.

“There may be waivers needed for [adequate yearly progress] decisions, school improvement decisions,” he said. Districts could simply notify their states that they would like waivers, and each state would submit a list for review, Mr. Simon said.

“We’re going to make this as quick and efficient as possible,” he said.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act makes a range of demands on states and school districts, from requiring schools to show that their students have made adequate progress on tests to ensuring that a highly qualified teacher is in every classroom by the end of this school year. The law in many places makes plain that exceptions to its requirements may be made for natural disasters.

At press time last Friday, Congress was expected to deliver a $10.5 billion package of aid for President Bush’s signature. Lawmakers made clear that more aid would come when needs were fully assessed.

“This catastrophe is unprecedented, and it will take the full support and cooperation of the federal government to stabilize, repair, and rebuild the Gulf Coast,” Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said in a statement. At press time last week, no details were available on what that help might involve for schools.

School Lunch Guidance

As schools prepared to take in student evacuees from devastated areas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an Aug. 31 memo to programs that deal with food distribution in schools to help them come to grips with feeding children in the storm’s aftermath.

Areas with large numbers of evacuees registering at their schools should treat those students the same way they would homeless children under federal lunch guidelines, the memo says.

The policy allows schools to keep lists of those eligible for free meals instead of requiring applications that involve documentation of family income.

Households that are certified for emergency food stamps are automatically eligible for free school meals. Any operating schools in the areas the hurricane hit may serve all meals free to children through Sept. 30, the memo says. Also, some of the nutritional requirements for school lunches have been temporarily waived.

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