Days after Hurricane Katrina hit, the Bush Administration called for $2.4 billion in education aid to assist the estimated 372,000 displaced students during the current school year, leaving the details to Congress. Last week, Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee members Senators Mike Enzi (R-WY), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Chris Dodd (D-CT) introduced the Hurricane Katrina Elementary and Secondary Education Recovery Act (S. 1904). The bill would provide emergency aid to displaced students, but in a way that is inefficient and problematic. Overall, the bill fails to accomplish the most important objective of post-hurricane education relief: to efficiently provide immediate and equitable education relief to all affected families.
The HELP Committee Proposal
The HELP committee proposal includes a number of provisions in addition to emergency education relief. Among these are $100 million in grants for rebuilding affected school systems and $50 million for programs providing assistance to homeless youth.
However, the bulk of the funding under the Senate bill would provide emergency aid to schools serving displaced students. The proposal offers $6,000 per child to schools that have taken in displaced students for the 2005-06 school year, and $7,500 for children with special needs. Displaced students can use this funding to attend public, private, and charter schools. The bill calls for an authorization of $2.4 billion for this program.
The bill would allow aid to go to private schools, but it would impose too much bureaucracy and too many restrictive regulations on them. Ultimately, the proposal contains so many potential dangers for private schools that few are likely to participate, undermining the purpose of this hurricane relief effort: to provide education assistance to families displaced by Katrina, no matter where their children attend school.
The rules and regulations governing how this education aid is delivered and how schools can participate present major problems:
Inefficiency: The Senate bill is an inefficient mechanism for directing emergency education aid to the families who need it. The proposal calls for federal education aid to be distributed to the states and then to the local education agencies. Public schools would then determine how aid is granted to private schools. This process of channeling funding through multiple layers of government bureaucracy would unnecessarily delay aid from reaching intended beneficiaries.
Too Much Authority for Public School Systems over Private Schools: The proposal requires that any aid that is directed to a private school must first pass through the bureaucracy of the local public school system. This places the public school system in the position of determining how and when aid is provided to private schools-their competitors-that have taken in students who are eligible to participate. Compounding this problem is that public school systems would have a financial incentive to withhold aid from private schools. In effect, the bill would position public school districts to act as gatekeepers to private school participation.
Regulations Governing Private Schools: The bill includes regulations that would discourage religious schools from participating in the program. First, the bill includes an "opt-in" provision that requires parents to consent proactively to allow a child to participate in classes that include religious instruction. The proposal also requires that no public funding be used to pay teachers who provide any religious instruction or for classroom tools that include any religious component. Because private schools often include religious instruction as a part of the general curriculum, these requirements would prevent many schools from participating.
Constitutional Questions: In its 2002 Zelman decision that upheld Cleveland's voucher program, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a school voucher program that includes private religious schools is constitutional if the program allows parents to exercise true independent choice between religious and non-religious schools. Because it provides aid directly from government institutions to religious schools, the Senate HELP Committee's approach could be challenged on constitutional grounds. The threat of a legal challenge and possible court injunction could delay aid from reaching its intended beneficiaries.
No Real Relief for Displaced Families: When President Bush called for emergency education relief after Hurricane Katrina and asked for aid for families whose children attend private schools, Senator Kennedy responded, "This is not the time for a partisan political debate on vouchers." Displaced families "need real relief, not ideological battles." If Senators Kennedy, Enzi, Alexander and Dodd sought to provide "real relief" to all families displaced by Hurricane Katrina, their proposal does not achieve it. Their approach is inefficient and includes regulations that would discourage private schools from participating.
A Better Option: Family Education Reimbursement Accounts
House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) and Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) have introduced the Family Education Reimbursement Act (FERA), a promising alternative to the Enzi-Kennedy approach. FERA promises less bureaucracy, greater efficiency, more flexibility for parents, and fewer regulations than the Enzi-Kennedy proposal. Perhaps most importantly, FERA does not discriminate between religious and non-religious schools and follows the design of other education proposals that have been upheld by the Supreme Court.
The Boehner-Jindal FERA proposal would efficiently provide real and relief to every family displaced by Hurricane Katrina. In contrast, the Senate HELP Committee approach fails to do this and would effectively exclude tens of thousands of children from participating in the program at all.
Dan Lips is Policy Analyst for Education at The Heritage Foundation.