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WASHINGTON LETTER (UPDATED) Sep-27-2005 (920 words) Backgrounder. With photos posted Sept. 23. xxxn

Katrina school aid: Will it provide needed help or promote an agenda?

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Government and educational leaders agree on one thing: The 372,000 students from the Gulf Coast who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina need help. But just how this help is divvied up remains in question.

When the U.S. Department of Education announced plans Sept. 16 to pay 90 percent of the educational costs of students and schools affected by Hurricane Katrina for one year, some Democrats and officials from teachers' unions immediately saw red flags. They said the plan for spending $7,500 per displaced student in public or private schools amounted to nothing short of a way to sneak in a national voucher program.

A Sept. 22 hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Education and Child Development took up the issue of how to legislate aid for Katrina's displaced school children. "This committee has moved from being the most contentious to being the most productive," said Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which oversees the subcommittee.

Enzi and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., introduced legislation Sept. 15 to provide aid to schools. The measure is part of a broad legislative package to help with recovery on the Gulf Coast, but it has not reached the full Senate for a vote. As written, the measure did not include giving aid to Catholic and other religious schools, but it may be amended to include such language.

The department's plan seeks $2.6 billion in new hurricane relief spending. It would distribute public-school funds through school districts and private-school funds directly to parents -- in line with the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing vouchers only if parents, not schools, receive the funds.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said his support for the Katrina aid relief proposal to benefit public and private school students was "a deviation from the voucher position" he has taken in the past.

"This is not the time to rewrite laws; this is a tragedy," he said, noting that the response to the crisis "needs to be balanced and thoughtful to get these kids back on their feet as soon as possible."

Dominican Sister Michaeline Green, superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, La., couldn't agree more. Sister Green, one of the panelists who testified before the Senate subcommittee, urged Congress to provide financial assistance "to all students no matter where they are enrolled" and noted that schools in her diocese alone had taken in 4,000 displaced students from Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

"It's our mission to reach out to anyone in need," Sister Green told Catholic News Service during a break in the hearing. But the cost of helping these students is also a real one. She told subcommittee members that extra costs stemmed from hiring additional teachers, counselors and aides and providing additional classrooms and furniture. Schools have also taken on additional transportation and security costs and utility expenses.

Sister Green noted that Louisiana is in a unique situation because one-third of its students attend nonpublic schools compared to the national average of 11 percent. Also, in the devastated areas around New Orleans alone, 50,000 of the displaced students are from Catholic schools.

Displaced students taken in by Baton Rouge Catholic schools are primarily from low- and middle-income families, the nun said, adding that the schools that welcomed them have either waived or deferred tuition payments. The school communities also have often provided school supplies, uniforms, food and housing for the evacuated families.

Joe Wray, principal of St. Michael the Archangel Diocesan Regional High School in Baton Rouge, knows firsthand about taking in displaced students. The school's initial enrollment of 772 students nearly doubled after Hurricane Katrina. Three days after the hurricane, the school had 1,200 new applicants. It now has 185 displaced students in what they call the "day school" and another 400 in the newly established "night school," which started Sept. 23 and runs from 4-10 p.m.

Wray, who attended the subcommittee hearing with Sister Green, said the school did not ask for tuition, telling families they could pay only if they had the ability to do so. They also took in the new students "all on faith" because the students came without any of the usual paperwork such as grades and student records.

"We teach our faith every day -- this is an opportunity to live it," he told CNS.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings praised the schools across the country that took in displaced students and said the responsibility of caring for these students was a teaching moment for the country.

"This was a hurricane that affected every family, including those in private schools, and the president believes, as do I, that we should not penalize those families because they chose to select private schools," she added during a Sept. 21 luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington.

Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, likewise praised the proposed school aid and said it would provide a "short-term but highly effective tool" to help students and their families to recover.

"This is the time for bipartisan efforts to put the needs of students first," she said, "and leave ideological debates about vouchers for another venue."


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