Memphis Commercial Appeal - Oliver Staley
Public and private schools in Memphis and Shelby County will be reimbursed for educating Katrina evacuees as a part of a first-of-its-kind program passed Thursday by Congress.
The bill, championed by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, was passed despite the concerns of some Democrats who fear the establishment of a voucher program and providing federal money for religious instruction.
Alexander said he was able to work with Democratic leaders like Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts to fashion a bill acceptable to all sides.
"Katrina didn't discriminate and we didn't either," said Alexander, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on education and early childhood development. "We put aside the arguments about private school vouchers and religious schools. ... There's never been a program quite like this, where federal dollars have followed children to the school of their choice."
The $645 million program means that any school that has taken in Katrina evacuees is eligible for up to $6,000 per student, or $7,500 for special needs children. About 372,000 students nationwide were displaced by the hurricane, and 125,600 students remain in different schools.
As of early December, there were 837 such students in Memphis City Schools and 579 in Shelby County Schools. Another 209 students are in Memphis Catholic schools and many are in other private schools.
The bill was passed by the Senate on Wednesday, unanimously by the House on Thursday, and will likely be signed by President Bush in the coming days. A companion piece of legislation will provide $750 million for rebuilding schools in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Michael Stein, president of Memphis' Margolin Hebrew Academy, said he was relieved. Margolin took in 25 students from New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast and has not charged them the typical $11,000 to $13,000 annual tuition.
"We were hoping for a good resolution," said Stein, who testified before Congress on the issue in September. "The issue was the politicians, I'm not sure on what side, that wanted to make this a voucher issue and it's clearly not. A lot of people were displaced and it became a government problem."
Still, not all parties are satisfied with the outcome. Rep. George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the House Education committee, has vigorously opposed providing public money to private schools.
Miller would have preferred an extension of a program put in place for the No Child Left Behind Act that allows private schools to use teachers and textbooks from public schools, said his spokesman, Tom Kiley.
"What this legislation does is create a whole new system for delivering aid to private schools," Kiley said. "All we're saying is that if you're using tax dollars, it should remain the property of the taxpayer."
Miller is also concerned that the program could provide taxpayer dollars for religious instruction, in violation of the Constitution, Kiley said.
Alexander, however, stressed that the program is a "one-time, one-year piece of legislation" that won't be a precedent for voucher programs.
The program is constitutionally sound, Alexander said, because parents and not schools will be the recipients of the federal aid, administered by the states. As with Pell Grants, schools will help the parents apply for the aid and only the schools can receive it, he said. "The money follows the child. It can't be spent on anything else."
As a result of the bill, parents who have lost much already won't have to compromise over their children's education, said Dr. Mary McDonald, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Memphis.
"They want to continue the same type of education that they were pursuing for their children before Katrina and this will allow them to do it."