Federal policymakers are now considering proposals to provide emergency relief to assist the estimated 372,000 K-12 students whom Hurricane Katrina displaced. The Administration has called for an emergency K-12 education package worth $2.4 billion. The package includes $1.9 billion in funding for public school systems that have taken in displaced students and an additional $488 million to reimburse families of displaced students for tuition payments to private schools. A number of other education relief packages have been proposed in Congress. Similarly, Louisiana Senators Mary Landrieu (D) and David Vitter (R) have introduced a comprehensive emergency aid package that includes offering $4,000 per student in grants to public and private schools for each displaced student enrolled. Other proposals in Congress, however, have called for restricting reimbursements to public schools. For example, the Displaced Students Relief Act would provide local public school districts with $8,305 per displaced student they enroll. In contrast to the Bush Administration and the Landrieu-Vitter proposal, the Displaced Students Relief Act restricts family's educational opportunities and does not treat all schools that have taken in displaced students fairly. Congress should support a package that provides educational relief to all displaced families, whether they seek assistance from public or private schools.
The Bush Administration Proposal
The Administration's K-12 relief package includes $1.9 billion for public schools and $488 million for private schools. Public school districts that take in more than 10 displaced students would receive grants worth 90 percent of the state's average per-pupil expenditure, up to $7,500. These costs would be paid for the 2005-06 school year, delivered in quarterly installments. In addition, the Administration proposal would provide tuition reimbursement to displaced families that have enrolled their children in private schools.
The Displaced Students Relief Act
In contrast, the Displaced Students Relief Act would grant local school systems $8,305 for every displaced student that they enroll. This program would exist for two years, and private schools would not be eligible for funding. While the bill's sponsors have not provided a cost estimate, if all 372,000 displaced students take advantage of it, the program would cost $3.1 billion. The actual cost is likely to be somewhat lower because some students will enroll in private schools despite the lack of federal reimbursement.
An Evaluation of the Proposals
Offering assistance to displaced children regardless of where they attend school during the year, as the Administration's proposal does, is both fairer and more practical than restricting aid to public school students, as in the Displaced Students Relief Act. Before the hurricane, many of these children were enrolled in private schools in Gulf Coast states. For example, one in three students in the New Orleans area was enrolled in a private school-a far higher proportion than the 11 percent of students who attend private schools nationally. More than 61,000 students evacuated from Louisiana alone were previously enrolled in private schools.
Limiting displaced students' educational options to public schools alone would have negative consequences. It would shift the entire burden of educating 372,000 displaced students onto public schools, while making it more difficult for private schools that have already welcomed displaced students to recoup their costs. In addition, limiting the options of families whose children had been attending private schools would force many displaced students into less familiar environments and thereby needlessly exacerbate the challenge of fitting in as part of a new community.
Allowing displaced families to choose the best school for their children, as the Administration and others have proposed, would have a number of important benefits. Most importantly, it would make the best use of all available classroom seats.
Education Smart Cards: A Method of Implementing Private School Reimbursement
While the Administration is committed to giving displaced families in the ability to choose between public and private schools, it has released few details about the mechanism by which parents would be reimbursed for tuition payments to private schools. The Department of Education has stated its intention to work with legislators on Capitol Hill to design the most suitable mechanism for delivering aid to the parents of displaced students attending private schools.
One way to provide this reimbursement is with Education Smart Cards. An Education Smart Card could be worth $7,500, some percentage of per-pupil expenditures in the local district, or any other set amount determined by Congress. Using basic credit card technology, private schools operating in accordance with state law could draw on Education Smart Cards for tuition payments over the next 12 months. In addition, policymakers could allow supplementary education service providers, such as those offering after-school tutoring, to draw on the cards. After 12 months, any unspent funds remaining on a child's Education Smart Card could be rolled over into an education savings account created on the child's behalf, such as already exist under federal law. Families could use these funds to cover future educational expenditures.
Simple Technology: Education Smart Cards would use simple technology that is already being used by a number of government programs, such as the Food Stamps program. Families would receive electronic cards that work like debit cards with a Personal Identification Number (PIN) that can only be used at authorized providers. As with the Food Stamp debit card program, participating private schools would receive processing machines to receive payments.
Determining Eligibility and Accountability: Eligibility to receive Education Smart Cards could be determined following guidelines that FEMA has already established.
A Source of Information: One benefit of the Education Smart Card program is that it would automatically provide information demonstrating that students are actually enrolled in school.
Maximize Flexibility and Mobility: The Education Smart Card scholarship program would also give families flexibility. This is particularly important because some displaced families may want to relocate in the coming months and transfer their children to new schools in the middle of the school year. Families would be able to use unused fund on Education Smart Cards to enroll elsewhere. Families could also use left-over funds for tutoring services during the summer-a valuable benefit because many children will have had a delayed start to their school years. Moreover, after any remaining funds are rolled over into Coverdell education savings accounts set up on their children's behalf after twelve months, families could continue to spend Education Smart Card resources on qualifying education services.
Opponents of school choice such as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and the National Education Association have criticized the Administration's proposal to reimburse families seeking assistance from private schools as an 'ideological' voucher program that would undermine public education. These criticisms are unfair and divert attention from the issue at hand: this is a temporary emergency relief program designed to help affected students begin to make their lives whole again. Allowing displaced students to attend private schools is fair and practical. It will increase the likelihood that families are able to enroll their children in the classrooms most suited to those students' individual needs during this challenging transition. As Congress looks to provide aid to displaced students, it should consider Education Smart Cards as an efficient method to deliver those funds.
Dan Lips is Policy Analyst for Education at The Heritage Foundation.