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Plan Will Pay 90% of Costs for Students Hit by Storm
A politically charged approach. . . .
By Michael Janofsky
WASHINGTON, Sept. 16 - The Department of Education announced a plan today to pay 90 percent of the educational costs of students and schools affected by Hurricane Katrina for one year.
But the plan, which seeks $2.6 billion in new hurricane relief spending, came under immediate attack from Democrats and officials of the nation's two largest teachers' unions, who asserted that a major component - payments to families with children in private schools - amounted to a national voucher program.
The department proposed that the bulk of the spending, $1.9 billion, be used to pay states and school districts for absorbing children from the affected areas into their public schools. An additional $227 million would be dedicated to displaced adults with outstanding student loans and to colleges and universities that have taken in students from the storm areas.
"The federal government is doing something it has never done before," Education Secretary Margaret Spellings told reporters, referring to a tenfold increase in federal per-student spending. "Our 9 percent investment is going to 90 percent. That's my big news."
The budget request also includes $488 million to compensate families with children in private schools, which critics said represented an effort by the Bush administration to initiate a favorite approach to school choice, the use of vouchers.
Over all, more than 372,000 schoolchildren were displaced by the storm and are now enrolled in schools as far from the Gulf Coast as California and New England. The total includes about 61,000 who attended private schools in Louisiana, 50,000 of them in Roman Catholic schools.
Under the plan, children in public and private schools would be regarded equally for aid purposes, with a spending cap of $7,500 per student.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, the ranking member of the Senate education committee, said in a statement that he applauded President Bush's efforts to serve the educational needs of displaced children. "But I am extremely disappointed that he has proposed providing this relief using such a politically charged approach," Mr. Kennedy added. "This is not the time for a partisan debate on vouchers."
Craig Orfield, a spokesman for the committee chairman, Senator Michael B. Enzi, Republican of Wyoming, said Mr. Enzi had not yet reviewed the department's request. He also said Mr. Enzi "generally does not favor vouchers."
Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, which represents 2.7 million public school teachers and has steadfastly opposed voucher programs, said, "Vouchers are a flawed and divisive approach that undermines public education."
Mr. Weaver's counterpart at the American Federation of Teachers, Edward J. McElroy, said, "We do not believe that the voucher plan in the Department of Education's proposal is the right way to provide that assistance."
Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, who favors vouchers, said she was "quite pleased" that the administration proposal included aid for children not in public schools.
"This is a way to help all children who have been displaced," Ms. Ristau said. "It also helps Catholic schools that are taking children in. Some are stretched as far as they can go, and this can alleviate some of the stress they are experiencing.
"But long term," she added, "this gives us a good idea of how this would work, like a national experiment."
Ms. Spellings, who spoke from Houston, where she was meeting with local school officials, said her intent was not so much to provoke a debate over vouchers as to try to provide aid for displaced families "whether they are in public or private schools." Ultimately, she said, Congress could decide what the aid package would include.
The plan also seeks to help colleges and universities by offering them up to $1,000 for each student taken in as a result of the storm.
New York Times
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