Proposals by some House Republicans to provide federal education funding for families affected by the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast have come under fire from Democrats and education groups, because families could use these funds for public or private education. Critics of the plans say they take advantage of a crisis situation to create a massive voucher program.

Democrats and education groups also are decrying another proposal by House Republicans that would slash 14 education programs from the federal budget to help pay for hurricane relief.

Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La., of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce have introduced legislation to create Family Education Reimbursement Accounts, which would provide direct reimbursement to schools on behalf of children displaced by the storms.

To use these accounts, parents would register online or over the phone for each child in pre-kindergarten through grade 12. The one-year accounts would provide as much as $6,700 per child, the average per-pupil expenditure in the states enrolling significant numbers of displaced students. Parents would provide their account number to the school enrolling their child, and the school would use this information to get reimbursement on behalf of the child. At the end of the one-year period, any unused funds would be credited back to the federal government.

Schools would receive direct electronic payments for the period a child is enrolled. The reimbursement accounts would be available to any public, private, or charter schools that have accepted displaced students. For the current school year, schools would be reimbursed quarterly through the accounts, based on how many weeks each child is enrolled.

“Thousands of kids from across Louisiana and the Gulf Coast have evacuated their homes and have been forced into new schools and new learning environments,” said Jindal. “These accounts will keep kids in schools, empower parents to make sure that their children’s needs are being met, and make sure all schools that have taken in needy students are supported for their generosity.”

Democrats and education groups claim these accounts are nothing more than vouchers, introduced at a vulnerable time for the nation.

“House Republicans should put the students and schools devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita ahead of their divisive quest for a voucher program,” said Edward McElroy, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

“Providing education aid through a voucher program is the wrong solution at the wrong time … Congress should not engage in ideological battles that will delay much-needed aid to the affected students and schools,” McElroy said.

“Setting up a new voucher program for private schools under the guise of Katrina recovery is unnecessary and suspect,” said Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association (NEA). “It deviates from the purest intent of helping children in need [by] using the Katrina disaster to promote a self-serving agenda to fund private schools with public school dollars.”

Katrina displaced more than 370,000 students, and these displaced students should not get caught up in the debate regarding voucher proposals to spend public school dollars for private school tuition, Weaver said.

“If the goal is to help children attending private schools, there are already existing federal laws, referred to as ‘equitable participation,’ to do that for the limited purpose of meeting this current crisis,” he said. “We are disappointed that the administration would use the catastrophe of this natural disaster as an opportunity to surface and advance a public education agenda that is both controversial and objectionable.”

He added, “Quite simply, public schools have been enrolling and caring for displaced students on a daily basis, and public dollars should be invested in public schools.”

Similar legislation, the Hurricane Education Assistance Act, also would reimburse public schools for enrolling students displaced by the storms. Introduced into the Committee on Education and the Workforce by Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, the bill states that school districts enrolling at least 10 students would be reimbursed up to 90 percent of their state’s per-pupil cost, with a maximum amount of $7,500 per child. The bill authorizes $1.9 billion for this purpose.

These funds could be used for expenses related to educating children, such as staff salaries, materials and equipment, student transportation, special services and instruction, and student counseling, among other things. The money would not be eligible for school construction.

Parents who enroll their children in private schools also would have access to this assistance, and the same $7,500 per-child limit would apply. In all, the bill would provide up to $488 million to be used by parents wishing to send their children to private schools.

Spending cuts again proposed

A related controversy involves a Republican proposal to repeal and eliminate 14 federal education programs to help the federal government pay for hurricane relief.

The Setting Priorities in Spending Act, introduced by Boehner, would repeal authorization for many programs, including at least four education programs that specifically deal with technology.

The Community Technology Centers program creates or expands community technology centers that provide disadvantaged residents in urban and rural communities with access to information technology and related training. Grants totaling more than $9 million were awarded through this program during the last fiscal year.

The Ready-to-Learn Television program supports the development and distribution of educational video programming for preschool and elementary school children and their parents. For the last fiscal year, nearly $23 million was appropriated for the program.

The Star Schools program encourages improved instruction in mathematics, science, and other subjects and serves disadvantaged areas. Star Schools grants are made to eligible partnerships between telecommunications entities and school systems.

The Tech-Prep Demonstration program provides grants to groups of education institutions that provide technical education at the postsecondary level, leading to an associate’s degree or certificate in a specific career field. During the last fiscal year, the program awarded grants of $9.8 million in all.

These programs and 10 others–including Arts in Education, Foreign Language Assistance, and Ready to Teach–have become unnecessary and cost taxpayers roughly $246 million last year, according to committee members.

“Congress has continued to fund these programs year after year, and it’s time to eliminate them,” Boehner said. “Congress needs to speed up to the plate and cut federal spending to help offset the ongoing hurricane recovery and rebuilding effort.”

Boehner added that the House and Senate should be prepared to make difficult choices in the best interest of both Gulf Coast residents and American taxpayers. “We have a responsibility to help those in need in the aftermath of two devastating hurricanes [Katrina and Rita; his proposal came before Wilma devastated much of south Florida], but we also have a responsibility to cut unnecessary federal spending elsewhere to pay for it.”

Critics of Boehner’s proposal note that House Republicans have voted to eliminate these programs from the federal budget for the past few years, and each time they have been saved in the final budget negotiation process between House and Senate leaders. They say this latest bill is yet another attempt to use the Gulf Coast tragedies to advance the agenda of conservative Republicans at the expense of public education.

“While many of these programs are smaller, they do have an impact on local school districts,” said Nancy O’Brien, a federal lobbyist with the NEA. “At a time when school districts are strapped for money to pay for No Child Left Behind requirements, to be taking money away will just deplete their resources further and diminish the potential offerings that schools can make to students.”

O’Brien added, “These programs have been on the chopping block all year, and Katrina efforts are just the current excuse or the current vehicle for trying to eliminate these things. This won’t pay for Katrina.”

Katrina-related spending has already reached $62 billion and is expected to climb as high as $200 billion. At press time, Republicans had passed 11 spending bills for the budget year that began Oct. 1, cutting 98 programs and redirecting $4.3 billion in savings to higher-priority programs. The federal education budget for fiscal year 2006 had yet to be decided.

eRate controversy

In other school-aid efforts, the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to provide money to eligible schools and libraries in the Gulf Coast so they can reconnect to the internet has some lawmakers concerned.

Roughly $132 million, taken from the federal eRate program, would provide discounted internet access and connection equipment to help rebuild the telecommunications infrastructures of schools and libraries affected by the storms. (See “eRate rules relaxed for schools hit by Katrina.”)

But Democrats say schools in other states could lose out on much-needed federal aid.

If the money for Katrina relief is taken from the eRate’s $2.25 billion in annual funding, other states could be directly affected, acknowledged Lisa Zaina, chief executive of the Universal Service Administrative Co., the nonprofit organization that handles day-to-day eRate operations.

The impact would not be as great if the FCC used some of the $365 million in unspent eRate funding rolled over from previous years, she said. But–so far–the agency has not indicated it would do so, meaning the funds would come out of the pool of money designated for this year’s funding.

“This plan is yet another example of the Bush administration shifting funds from one region of the country to pay for [the] Katrina relief effort, leaving some of our schools empty-handed,” said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich.

Links:

House Committee on Education and the Workforce
http://edworkforce.house.gov

American Federation of Teachers
http://www.aft.org

National Education Association
http://www.nea.org

Federal Communications Commission
http://www.fcc.gov