Unions Thwart Common-Sense Aid for Students Displaced by Hurricane Katrina

More than three months have passed since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, and Congress has yet to deliver on President Bush’s pledge to provide emergency funding to help the estimated 372,000 displaced students enroll in school for the year.

This failure is a lesson in education policy politics, demonstrating how special interest groups can thwart common-sense legislation. Now, with Congress finally considering legislation, the end may be in sight. But one question remains: Will Congress’s plan treat students equally, no matter where they go to school?

Days after the hurricane, President Bush called on Congress to provide quick and efficient aid to help all displaced students go back to school. Helping displaced students, including those in private schools, makes sense for this hurricane relief effort. After all, Hurricane Katrina unleashed its fury on public and private schools alike. Tens of thousands of displaced students had been enrolled in private schools before the hurricane struck. In New Orleans, one out of every three students attended a private school before Hurricane Katrina.

Only a few Members of Congress took President Bush’s request seriously. In the House, Education Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) and Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) proposed the Family Education Reimbursement Act, which would give every displaced student assistance to help enroll in school for the year. The strength of the FERA proposal is that it would allow displaced families to set up an account for their children just by calling a toll-free number, giving parents the choice to find the best possible schools for their children in this time of need and ensuring that those schools would receive fair reimbursement within a matter of weeks.

The Senate bill emerged with different priorities. Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Ranking Member Edward Kennedy (D-MA) sought to channel emergency education aid through the public school bureaucracy. Under their plan, local public school systems would be in charge of reimbursing public and private schools that have taken in displaced students. This plan passed with broad support in the Senate.

The House plan was held up in the Education and Workforce Committee, which voted down the measure in late October. Democrats on the committee unanimously opposed FERA and were joined by four dissenting Republicans.

Chief among their complaints was that FERA was a “school voucher” proposal that would undermine public education because it would provide reimbursement to private schools. Stoking this opposition were the National Education Association and the other public school special interest groups that were working to deny emergency aid to private schools that had taken in displaced students.

The public school lobby’s shrill warnings that any measure allowing parents to choose private schools will somehow destroy public education have always rung hollow, but they’re particularly off-base in this case. This House proposal isn’t a sweeping education reform plan; it’s an emergency hurricane relief package that simply seeks to provide some relief for the families of students displaced by Katrina and the generous schools, public and private, that have taken them in.

As Congress prepares to recess for the rest of the year, House and Senate education leaders appear to be reaching consensus on language that would finally provide emergency education aid to schools in the Gulf Coast and displaced students. A vote may come over the weekend. Yet, even as equitable and efficient relief — relief that would help all children in all schools without unnecessary restrictions — seems within reach, public education interest groups are still standing in the way.

If Congress does embrace a plan that assists displaced students no matter what school they attend, it will be a victory for those students, their families, and all of the schools — public, private, and charter — that pitched in during this time of need. Moreover, it will be a victory for the principle that helping children after a disaster is more important than special interest politics.