Choice Advocates Call on States to Continue Katrina Relief

Published June 1, 2006

A temporary educational aid package to hurricane-displaced students has set the stage for lasting school choice expansion, a leading education advocate says, and he is being joined in that call by others.

Under the terms of a federal law passed late last year, thousands of students affected by Hurricane Katrina have the opportunity to attend a private school or a public school other than the one to which they are geographically assigned. But the federal aid allowing them to do so will expire after the 2005-06 school year.

Clint Bolick, president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice in Phoenix, Arizona, said individual states should be urged to offer displaced students “programs that will provide long-term relief,” meaning a continuation at the state level of the emergency federal aid approach that does not discriminate against private, religious schools.

Federal Relief Without Strings

In the first quarter of 2006, the U.S. Department of Education gave financial assistance to 157,743 students whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The Hurricane Education Recovery Act, signed by President George W. Bush in December 2005, authorized reimbursements of up to $6,000 for each student–$7,500 for each child with special needs–to cover tuition costs at the public or private school of their parents’ choice.

“The hurricanes did not distinguish between public and private schools or students, and neither did the aid,” said Joe McTighe, executive director of the Council for American Private Education, an advocacy group based in Germantown, Maryland. “The storms flattened and flooded both types of schools with the same ferocity, and uprooted communities and families indiscriminately. Fortunately, the relief did not discriminate, either.”

The U.S. Department of Education spent more than $120 million in the first quarter of 2006 to aid displaced students. Information was not available at press time to show how that money was distributed between public and private schools. The federal legislation made relief available to 372,000 schoolchildren who were relocated due to the 2005 season’s major Gulf Coast hurricanes. The reimbursement funds are administered through local and state departments of education.

Bipartisan Support

According to data obtained by the Alliance for School Choice, every state but Hawaii has enrolled Katrina-displaced students through the program. States closest to the effects of the destruction accommodated the most pupils, including Louisiana (46,672), Texas (46,324), and Mississippi (17,873); 27 students were admitted in far-away Alaska.

“The Katrina program is significant for the school choice movement for two reasons,” Bolick said. “It is the largest K-12 school choice program ever enacted, and it is the first time that many Democrats ever voted for a school choice measure.”

The bipartisan legislation included significant input and support from prominent Democratic U.S. Senators Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.

Local Efforts

Much of the hard work of revitalizing educational opportunities in the hurricane-stricken areas has been done at the state and local level.

In November 2005, the Louisiana legislature approved a state takeover of most New Orleans public schools, removing 107 of the city’s lowest-performing 128 schools from the local board of education’s oversight. As a result, most schools will be run as charters by outside operators.

The new structure, as outlined in an April 22 Times-Picayune newspaper article, will give greater autonomy to individual school operators and significantly more parental choice among the city’s schools. Louisiana officials estimate that by August, 50 New Orleans schools will have the capacity to compete to serve as many as 34,000 students. In April, about 12,000 students were enrolled in the city’s 25 schools.

Continuing Progress

While that’s a step forward, New Orleans’ public school transformation may not be enough, Bolick said. In Louisiana and Texas, the Alliance for School Choice is organizing students and families “to fight for permanent school choice programs” by applying the Hurricane Education Recovery Act on a long-term, national scale.

“The justification for voting for school choice in this narrow instance was an emergency,” Bolick explained. “Now we must demonstrate that the New Orleans schools were in an emergency long before Katrina struck, and most other urban school districts are in similar crisis.”

Teachers unions, which fought against the federal program, are likely to revive their arguments if states seek to make the temporary choice programs permanent.

Important Model

In a December 15 letter to the U.S. Senate, National Education Association President Reg Weaver decried the emergency assistance program, which was signed into law two weeks later, as an “attempt to hijack the appropriations process in support of an ideological agenda.” Weaver called it a “voucher scheme,” an idea he said is “opposed by the overwhelming majority of the general public.”

Yet as school choice supporters press forward, McTighe sees the temporary tuition aid to displaced students as a key model for compassion-based educational options.

“The hurricane aid has been called controversial, but there is nothing controversial about helping students and families in need,” McTighe said. “Helping one another is what we do as a nation when disaster strikes. We reach out to our brothers and sisters without distinction; their needs become our needs. The controversy would be to turn away from those in need.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Golden, Colorado.