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Education Notebook on Education

October 21, 2005

October 21, 2005 | Education Notebook on Education

How Do You Spell Education Relief?

How Do You Spell Education Relief?

October 21, 2005

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) drew a line in the sand days after President George W. Bush included funding for private schools in his $2 billion proposal to provide emergency aid for students displaced by Hurricane Katrina. "This is not the time for a partisan political debate on vouchers," said Kennedy. Displaced families, he continued, "need real relief, not ideological battles."

For a few brief moments in a recent Senate hearing, it seemed like some of Senator Kennedy's party allies would step over his line and, due the extreme situation, embrace public support for parental school choice. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), for example, announced that he was willing to support aid that included private schools, "a deviation from the voucher position" he has taken in the past. Count us among the optimistic at the time.

That optimism was premature. On Wednesday, Sens. Kennedy, Enzi, Dodd, and Alexander introduced legislation to provide funding to schools that are teaching displaced students. This proposal does include aid for private schools. However, it also includes new regulations and administrative hurdles that would interfere with some schools' religious missions and would dissuade most private schools from participating. For example, the proposal would give public schools the authority to regulate how aid to private schools is used.

Moreover, the proposal would restrict sectarian schools from using any of these funds for religious purposes-a deal-breaker for many private schools. Because the proposal would provide government aid to private schools directly, without the critical component of parental choice, this funding could be challenged on constitutional grounds, one more question-mark that displaced families and schools don't need right now.

Fortunately, an alternative proposal is gaining traction in the U.S. House of Representatives. Education and Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) joined with Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) to introduce the Family Education Reimbursement Account (FERA) Act. The Boehner-Jindal FERA proposal has many advantages over the Senate measure; chiefly, it gives immediate relief to displaced families and affords them maximum flexibility through a new type of education account.

Under the Boehner-Jindal proposal, displaced families could open a FERA worth $6,700 for their child by calling a toll-free number or visiting a website. Once the account is set up, parents would provide the child's account information to his school, and the school would be reimbursed for its expenses at regular intervals during the school year. If families move or choose to put their child in a different school, the FERA account would stay with them.

The Boehner-Jindal FERA proposal offers a number of benefits that the Senate approach does not. For starters, it would be quick and efficient. The FERA proposal calls for a commercial, non-government agency to run the program. One estimate suggested that the FERA program could be up and running in just two weeks.

Second, the FERA proposal would treat all families and schools equally. In its devastation, Hurricane Katrina didn't discriminate between public and private schools. Similarly, both public and private schools across the nation have welcomed displaced students with open arms. Education assistance shouldn't discriminate between public and private schools either. Providing aid directly to parents would accomplish the core purpose of the emergency education relief package: ensuring that displaced students find a spot in a classroom that meets their needs for this school year.

Of course, opponents of school choice will criticize the Boehner-Jindal FERA proposal for including private-school funding. But they should remember that this isn't an education reform package-it's an emergency hurricane relief measure. If passed, the Boehner-Jindal FERA program would terminate at the end of the school year. Unspent funds would return to the U.S. Treasury. For better or for worse, the public school establishment's virtual monopoly over taxpayer dollars, which Sen. Kennedy has so effectively protected over the years, wouldn't be threatened by the FERA proposal.

Sen. Kennedy himself said that this is a time when we should put "ideology" aside. In that spirit, members of Congress should evaluate the House and Senate proposals on only one criterion: which measure will ensure that every student displaced by Katrina is able to enroll in a high-quality classroom for the current school year?

And as Sen. Kennedy would no doubt agree, answering that question shouldn't have anything to do with partisan politics.

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