Hurricane Relief Bill Sets Humanitarian Example

Published February 1, 2006

The Hurricane Education Recovery Act (HERA) signed into law by President George W. Bush on December 30 is the most comprehensive package of K-12 school choice yet attempted in the United States. While providing a one-year dose of large-scale disaster relief, it could set a pattern for enduring education reform.

“This is the largest school choice program ever enacted,” noted Clint Bolick, whose Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice worked hard for HERA. “We hope it will serve as a model for future efforts to redress educational crises throughout the nation.”

Big Education representatives and their allies made no secret of their fear the $1.6 billion relief package for students and schools hurt by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita would set a precedent. In a December 23 statement, National Education Association President Reg Weaver lambasted HERA as part of “the worst assault on public education in American history.”

“For the first time ever,” Weaver asserted, “taxpayers will be forced to pay for a nationwide voucher program as outlined in the Department of Defense appropriations bill. Religious schools will be allowed to receive taxpayer dollars and proselytize, and discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion.”

Long Debate, Negotiations

After months of debate and negotiation, Congress passed HERA as an attachment to a defense spending bill. Private schools, including those with religious affiliations, are eligible for aid for restart-up costs and reimbursement for the expenses of educating displaced students they have accepted. The legislation leaves undisturbed a Clinton-era provision that allows faith-based providers to take religion into account in their hiring practices.

Children uprooted by hurricanes are not the only students who are educationally adrift and in search of much better schools, some of the bill’s supporters note. Bolick believes honoring parents’ wishes by providing tuition reimbursement, as is being done for students from Louisiana and Mississippi, could make life better for millions more children around the nation. He sees the hurricane relief as following “in the great tradition of the G.I. Bill,” which was Congress’s response to the educational needs of returning veterans. It provided them vouchers to attend the colleges and universities of their choice, including private and religiously affiliated ones.

“When America faces a crisis, we look to all possible sources of relief, including public, private, and religious entities,” said Bolick. “Someone who’s drowning doesn’t care if the person at the other end of the lifeline is wearing a clerical collar or a yarmulke.

“The next step is to recognize that public schools all across urban America are in serious crisis, and we need to enlist every educator who can help the children, in both public and private schools,” Bolick said.

Top Priority

Some supporters of HERA, including Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Senate Education Committee Chairman Michael Enzi (R-WY), pointedly said this one-time action did not signal their support for vouchers as a permanent reform for other states. However, in addressing the devastation the hurricanes of 2005 wreaked on the Gulf Coast, Congress put aside turf battles and adopted an education relief plan that, for once, gives parents’ preferences top priority.

Just before Christmas, Congress approved tuition reimbursement for the public, charter, and private schools that opened their doors to approximately 370,000 children displaced by the monster hurricanes. Instead of being doled out by giant education bureaucracies, relief aid of up to $6,000 per student and $7,500 per disabled child is going directly to the schools parents have chosen for their children across the country.

A little more than half the relief money is going to schools and districts in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama struggling to restart after being slammed by the hurricanes. The act set up the following rule of thumb to ensure equity: If 20 percent of affected schools in a state are private, then 20 percent of the hurricane relief must be set aside for private schools.

Maximum Leeway

The other portion of HERA relief–per-student aid–goes for tuition reimbursement for schools across the country that have taken in Katrina and Rita victims. Parents who have chosen a private school must notify the local public school district and have their allotments sent through the district to the chosen schools.

Final passage on the defense measure with HERA attached was 93-0 in the Senate and by unanimous consent in the House.

In the end, the nation’s lawmakers agreed with the plan’s advocates that thousands of private and public schools and the displaced hurricane victims who’ve chosen them should be given maximum leeway for a successful educational year. The question now becomes: What about the school year after this one, and those to follow?

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.