November 3, 2005

November 3, 2005 | Commentary on Education

Leaving Hurricane Victims Behind

Two months have passed since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, and still Congress has failed to provide promised emergency education relief to help hundreds of thousands of displaced students enroll in school this year. And a recent vote in one congressional committee just dimmed the prospects of relief coming soon still further.

Days after the hurricane hit, President Bush pledged federal assistance to assure that every displaced child would be enrolled in school. Specifically, he called for $2.4 billion in aid to reimburse public and private schools that take in these students. He charged Congress with working out the details.

Members of Congress responded with a variety of proposals. The most promising measure was introduced by Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La. Their Family Education Reimbursement Act (FERA) would have delivered $6,700 to every displaced student to cover school costs for the year.

One of the strengths of the Boehner-Jindal FERA proposal was that it was quick and efficient. Displaced families would have been able to enroll their child in the FERA program by calling a toll-free number or visiting a Web site. Over the phone, families would be given a FERA account number, which families could then provide to their child's schools so that they could be reimbursed. A private government agency would administer the program in order to minimize the red tape.

Boehner and Jindal made sure to address cost concerns, as well as fears this would become a permanent program: The FERA program would end in July 31, 2006 and any unused money would return to the U.S. Treasury. By finding other budget savings, Boehner was able to ensure that the proposal wouldn't result in any new government spending.

Importantly, the Boehner-Jindal FERA proposal would have treated all families and schools equally. Hurricane Katrina didn't discriminate between families or between public and private schools, so neither should federal aid. The Boehner-Jindal proposal would allow every displaced family to participate, offering them the maximum flexibility to choose the best classroom for their child, whether in a public, private or charter school.

One might expect such a common-sense relief package to attract widespread support. Such assumptions were destroyed in an Oct. 27 congressional committee hearing, where loyalty to special interest groups trumped helping displaced families.

Twenty-two Democrats and four Republicans rejected the Boehner-Jindal proposal. The Republican defectors were Reps. Judy Biggert of Illinois, John Kuhl of New York, Bob Inglis of South Carolina and Todd Platts of Pennsylvania. The committee's vote means that displaced families and their schools will have to wait even longer for federal assistance, if they can even expect it at all.

But why? Well, the dissenters said, the FERA proposal included "vouchers" that threatened to undermine public education. For example, Rep. Major R. Owens, D-N.Y., argued that supporters of the Boehner-Jindal measure were trying to "use the misery of evacuees of Katrina as an excuse to implement a partisan political program."

But Mr. Owens should remember that this wasn't an education reform proposal, it was a hurricane relief measure. The purpose was to ensure that every displaced student is enrolled in a school -- an important part of making families' lives normal again. Extending reimbursement to every displaced family is the surest way to ensure that every child gets back in school. Those who proposed excluding some parents and schools from the program were the ones playing politics in the relief proposal.

But these arguments failed to persuade politicians beholden to public school interest groups that vehemently oppose any proposal to allow parents to consider options besides public schools. Lobbying against the measure was a heavyweight lineup of special interest groups -- including the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of School Administrators and National School Boards Association. These groups opposed the bill even though it would have helped hundreds of thousands of public school students and provided at least $1 billion for public schools nationwide.

Surely the families displaced by Hurricane Katrina deserve better.
Dan Lips is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Dan Lips Senior Policy Analyst
Domestic Policy Studies