Days after Hurricane Katrina hit, President George W. Bush called for $2.4 billion in aid to cover education costs for displaced students, whether at public or private schools, leaving the details to Congress. On October 20, House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) introduced a proposal to create Family Education Reimbursement Accounts for students affected by Hurricane Katrina. The Boehner legislation will ensure that all of the 372,000 students displaced by the hurricane have an opportunity to enroll in a quality classroom for the 2005-06 school year.
The Family Education Reimbursement Act (FERA) would efficiently provide education aid directly to families so that every school that has taken in a displaced student can be fairly reimbursed. FERA would treat all schools equally-including public, private, and charter schools-and grant families significant flexibility throughout the current school year.
With FERA, families would be able to call a toll-free number or visit a website to set up an education reimbursement account and receive a FERA account number for each of their children. Each student's account would receive $6,700 for the 2005-06 school year. Parents would provide the student-specific account number to schools, and schools would contact the managing agency to receive reimbursements. FERA calls for this program to be managed by a private organization with experience administering such a program. One estimate suggests that the FERA program could start up in less than a month.
FERA places only a minor administrative burden on participating schools. Schools would enroll on the Internet or by calling the toll-free number to set up reimbursement. Payments would be made from students' accounts to schools quarterly. With this simple mechanism, reimbursement funds would follow students who enroll in another school during the school year. FERA would be temporary, ending before the 2006-07 school year.
The Benefits of Accounts
Efficiency:Providing immediate relief directly to families through Family Education Reimbursement accounts is an efficient method to deliver aid and ensure that children's education is not further disrupted. Rather than channeling funding through multiple layers of agencies and governments, FERA matches funds directly with students and their schools. The simple, two-step sign-up process avoids needless paperwork and bureaucracy to accomplish the intended legislative purpose: ensuring that displaced children find seats in quality classrooms.
Empowering Parents with Maximum Flexibility:By providing aid directly to families, Family Education Reimbursement accounts would also provide families with the maximum flexibility possible. Because parents could use their children's accounts at more than one school during the school year, FERA would give families the ability to transfer schools as they work to rebuild their lives and find permanent homes. Moreover, because parents could use the accounts at public, private, and charter schools, the proposal gives displaced families the ability to choose the best school for their children. This is an important point because many schools have been forced to take in significant numbers of students and seats in quality classrooms in some areas may be scarce.
Avoiding Constitutional Problems:FERA is designed in a manner that is consistent with other education funding programs that allow parents to use public funds to pay for their children to attend private religious schools. Importantly, FERA gives aid to parents rather than to schools, so that parents can independently choose the best school for their children, whether a public or private school. This method of providing aid to parents is consistent with the Cleveland school voucher program that was upheld by the Supreme Court in its 2002 Zellman decision.
Why Flexibility Is Crucial
Some reliable opponents of parental choice in education question whether displaced families should be able to direct education reimbursements to private schools. These critics should remember that proposals like FERA are hurricane relief measures, not school reform proposals. These temporary, hurricane relief packages are designed to help families make their lives whole again, not to reform the education system.
For many families, returning to normalcy includes enrolling their children in a private school for the current school year. Roughly one-third of New Orleans students had been enrolled in private schools prior to Katrina. Including private schools in any reimbursement program will allow parents to continue their lives with less disruption, giving the students affected by the storm much-needed stability.
A bipartisan consensus is growing that embraces greater flexibility through parental choice as an appropriate response to the unique circumstances of the Gulf Coast. For example, Louisiana Senators Mary Landrieu (D) and David Vitter (R) included a voucher proposal in their comprehensive emergency hurricane relief legislation.
Similarly, the Associated Press reports that regular opponents of parental school choice in Louisiana are now considering a proposal to partner with the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans to create a publicly funded school voucher program for 3,000 public school students. At the urging of state Superintendent of Education Cecil Picard, a longtime voucher opponent, the state's top school board voted to begin initial talks on the design of a school voucher program for displaced students. "Things have changed dramatically since Hurricane Katrina," explained Sec. Picard. "So I think we need to start thinking outside of the box."
The Boehner-Jindal FERA proposal and other emergency education relief proposals are estimated to cost upwards of $2 billion. Chairman Boehner has stated his commitment to finding offsets to pay for the proposal. He has offered another proposal, the Setting Priorities in Spending Act, legislation which calls for the elimination of 14 unnecessary federal education programs that together cost taxpayers more than $250 million last year. The President's 2006 budget also proposed eliminating these programs. Congress should set budget priorities by eliminating these and other programs to offset the cost of emergency hurricane relief.
The Family Education Reimbursement Act offers a sensible approach to providing emergency education relief to students displaced by Katrina. FERA would provide relief to families directly and quickly, giving them the maximum flexibility to enroll their children in quality classrooms for the current school year. This is a crucial step toward rebuilding displaced families' lives.
Dan Lips is Policy Analyst for Education at The Heritage Foundation.
 "State Education Board to Consider Voucher Offer," Associated Press, October 21, 2005.