Federal

On Katrina’s 2nd Anniversary, U.S. Urged to Bolster Aid for School Recovery

By Erik W. Robelen — August 29, 2007 6 min read
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The U.S. government showed a “massive failure” in its response to the educational troubles that arose in the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina, and it now needs to raise its level of assistance dramatically, the Southern Education Foundation contends in a new report.

Released two years to the day after the storm slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, the report amasses a range of data to argue that the federal government’s response to the post-storm challenges faced by K-12 and higher education fell far short—and that it’s not too late to shift course.

“What is urgently needed now is a full, well-executed strategy through national public policy to ensure that the resources are in place to provide a quality education for Gulf Coast children, lest they be victimized twice—first by the storms and second by indifference or incompetence,” the report says.

Recovery & Reform

For further resources on the recovery and reform efforts in New Orleans read our special series, New Orleans: Recovery & Reform.

The Atlanta-based foundation, established in 1867, works to “ensure fairness and excellence in education for all,” with a particular emphasis on African-Americans in the South. Its board of trustees includes leaders in business, education, and philanthropy.

Because of its timing, the report comes amid heightened attention to the lingering scars left by the one-two punch that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita delivered to the Gulf Coast in August and September two years ago.

President Bush and first lady Laura Bush were scheduled today to visit the first public school to open in the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a neighborhood that was devastated by severe flooding set off by Hurricane Katrina. (“Commitment, Charter Status, Brought School Back,” Aug. 29, 2007).

Hudson La Force, a senior counselor to Secretary Spellings, argued last week that the Education Department has done a good job in helping states and districts, and has heard so from state and local education officials.

“We’re actually proud of the response that we’ve given,” said Mr. La Force, who had not seen the full report. “The people who really are on the front lines of trying to rebuild their schools and get children who were out of school back on track—their feedback has been consistently positive.”

He added, “Now, we can’t always do everything that they ask us to do, but we’ve put over $2 billion into the hurricane recovery, just on the education side.”

More Funds Urged

The new report estimates the total commitment of federal money to date for education relief and recovery, excluding loans, at $2.5 billion. It says that amount is about 2 percent of total U.S. government aid tied to the storms, which it says comes to about $100 billion.

The report maintains that damage to schools in the Gulf Coast region remains a pressing problem that requires more federal aid.

Recent estimates of the cost to restore damaged school structures and replace equipment and supplies—in both precollegiate and higher education—comes to roughly $6.2 billion in Louisiana and Mississippi, the report says. It calculates that the U.S. government has committed $1.2 billion that can be used to remedy that damage.

That amount does not include almost $1 billion in community-disaster loans from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which can be used for schools and other essential services, as well as $400 million in loans to four historically black colleges and universities affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Steve T. Suitts, a program coordinator at the Southern Education Foundation and the report’s author, said his organization could not determine what portion of the $6.2 billion would be covered by private insurance.

According to the Education Department, the total aid Mr. La Force cited includes $750 million through the so-called Restart Aid program—a fairly flexible funding source that reached the hurricane-battered states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas—and $878 million in emergency impact-aid money that helps pay for educating students displaced by the storms.

The foundation estimates that up to 15,000 K-12 public school students in Louisiana and Mississippi missed school last year because of Katrina-related problems. It says this is another area in which the federal government needs to take action.

“These dropouts are probably there to stay, unless some real effort is made on truancy and on recovering dropouts,” Mr. Suitt said.

The report also suggests that even students who have returned to school are vulnerable to dropping out later. “What we’ve got here is the potential for a massive increase of dropouts in these areas that could really be catastrophic,” Mr. Suitt said.

The report also charges that problems with the method of distributing some federal funds led to skewed, if unintended, outcomes, in which the most distressed districts serving the largest numbers of needy students were shortchanged.

The report makes several recommendations for action from the federal government, including a call for a “comprehensive review of education needs” to assess the work that still needs to be done to help Gulf Coast schools.

In addition, the report suggests creating a “high-level, federal-state coordinating entity” to oversee planning and implementation of proposals for further action.

Louisiana Reacts

Leslie R. Jacobs, a member of the Louisiana board of elementary and secondary education, had not seen the report last week, but said she agreed with the idea that the federal government should provide a substantial increase in money for facilities.

“Because of the expensive nature of the disaster, there wasn’t enough insurance, and FEMA funds are not going to [be adequate],” she said.

Ms. Jacobs also suggested greater federal support for children’s mental-health needs, in the trauma wrought by Katrina. Another issue she cited, not mentioned in the report, involves the so-called Stafford Act, the main law that governs how FEMA dispenses money for recovery efforts.

Ms. Jacobs, as well as Louisiana state schools Superintendent Paul G. Pastorek, argue that the law as written is too rigid, and creates disincentives for flexible approaches, such as relocating facilities.

“The Stafford Act, unfortunately, [pressures] us, by a lot of different mechanisms, to rebuild our community the way it was before,” Mr. Pastorek said last week. “We’re trying to build our community in a different way.”

Ms. Jacobs said that while state and local officials have found FEMA hard to work with at times, “The U.S. Department of Education was really responsive, they really were.”

Audit in Mississippi

Even as the new report stressed the need for more federal aid to help schools with storm recovery, a recent audit released earlier this month (requires Microsoft Word) suggested that Mississippi may actually have received $3.1 million more in federal aid than it was entitled to for dealing with the effects of the 2005 hurricanes.

The audit by the inspector general’s office of the federal Education Department was based on a sampling of six districts in the state. It found that the districts may have incorrectly identified students displaced by the hurricanes.

The Aug. 8 report said the state’s auditors generally agreed with the findings. But Mississippi took issue with some of the methodology, and expressed reluctance to return any aid based on it.

Staff Writer Alyson Klein contributed to this story.

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