Legislators Debate Education Help for Hurricane Victims

Published December 1, 2005

As one hurricane after another battered America’s southern shores in the late summer and early autumn of this year, Capitol Hill swayed back and forth over the policy implications for the education of students affected by Hurricane Katrina. As noted in the November issue of School Reform News, President George W. Bush’s proposal to dispense federal relief to public, private, and charter school patrons rankled the public education establishment while heartening parental choice supporters.

Subsequently, Republican leaders of the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee proposed a sweeping, federally funded K-12 choice program–an emergency plan that would expire in a year. Committee Chairman John Boehner of Ohio and Louisiana Rep. Bobby Jindal unveiled a plan for Family Education Reimbursement Accounts (FERA), which would enable hurricane-displaced families and their schools to bypass education bureaucracies in order to receive aid for emergency schooling.

Both congressmen spoke of “empowering parents” to find the best educational opportunities for their children, in public (including charter), private, or religious schools. Parents would be able to register online or with a toll-free telephone number to set up an education account for each K-12 child. The federal government would deposit up to $6,700 per child into the account, and schools would use account numbers to receive reimbursements via electronic transfer.

In some ways, FERA would resemble Education Savings Accounts, which provide tax advantages for private savings for education from kindergarten through graduate school.

Leaders of the nation’s largest teacher union, the National Education Association (NEA), didn’t like the House plan any better than they liked Bush’s. They circulated a letter opposing the streamlined method of reimbursement, arguing public school bureaucracies should control the disbursement of all relief aid.

FERA Rejected

With four House Education Committee Republicans joining a solid block of Democrats voting “nay,” FERA failed October 28 on a 21-26 vote. It appeared that as a default position, public and private schools would have to apply to the U.S. Department of Education for funds to aid student victims of the hurricanes. A determined Boehner promptly said he would try to get streamlined FERA relief through the Budget Committee as part of the budget reconciliation process.

“It is an outrage,” Boehner said in a news release, “that House Democrats and the education establishment would stand in the way of meaningful relief for the victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The goal of our proposal was to provide reimbursement to schools in the simplest and most efficient way possible in this time of national emergency. Is providing these funds through the layers upon layers of education bureaucracy the best way to achieve this goal? Of course not.”

Senate Bill Includes Choice

Meanwhile, in the U.S. Senate, the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee and the ranking Democratic member rolled out their own hurricane relief proposal–one that simultaneously satisfied and disturbed the public education establishment.

Senators Michael B. Enzi (R-WY) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) proposed distributing $2.4 billion in federal aid through local school districts, which then would oversee distribution to displaced students no matter what kind of school they were attending.

That preserved the school bureaucracy control the NEA and others sought, but for Kennedy it represented a shift from his original position that students in private and religious schools should not receive aid. (See “NEA Opposes Proposed Katrina Relief Plan for Schoolchildren,”School Reform News, November 2005.) Kennedy altered his position after critics pointed out that a quarter or more of students in the worst-hit regions of the Gulf Coast had been enrolled in private or parochial schools.

According to an October 21 Congressional Quarterly article, Kennedy’s usual allies on the left did not appreciate his willingness to compromise so that private school families could share in putting the education part of their shattered lives back together.

“This [Enzi-Kennedy] bill is deeply misguided,” the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, told CQ. “This bill does not use the word ‘voucher,’ but that’s what this really is. This gives millions of dollars in virtually unrestricted cash grants to religious schools.” Kennedy denied the HELP measure would launch vouchers, calling it instead “one-time emergency impact aid.”

Concerned About Precedent

Advocates on both sides were looking at the impact the Katrina relief might have on education beyond the coming year. Terri Schroeder, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, told CQ the Enzi-Kennedy bill would set a dangerous precedent.

“Ultimately, you do it once,” Schroeder said, “you open yourself up for doing it again during the next crisis, especially once you have the infrastructure in place.”

Writing in the October 21 online edition of Human Events, Heritage Foundation Vice President Mike Franc called the Boehner-Jindal proposal “the most ambitious education choice plan ever introduced in Congress.”

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