Chattanooga Times Free Press - Lee Pitts
WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Thursday that the federal government should give money to schools taking in students displaced by Hurricane Katrina regardless of a school’s public or private status.
The program should be a one-year, temporary solution for every child now attending an accredited school elsewhere, Sen. Alexander said.
"Our goal is to help all of Katrina’s schoolchildren," he said at a hearing on the matter he headed for a Senate subcommittee on education. "Katrina the storm didn’t discriminate against children, and neither should we."
His plan drew fire from several education groups that said Republicans are using the disaster to implement a long-sought voucher program for religious schools, jeopardizing the constitutional separation of church and state.
In a statement, Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association that represents public schoolteachers, said vouchers undermine public education.
"We need to look at real, longterm solutions — not risky, Band-Aid fixes that won’t do anything to help these kids find the normalcy they’ll need to help them heal," Mr. Weaver said.
Sen. Alexander said the program’s goal would not be to create a new permanent program, and it is not an attempt by Republicans to resurrect the voucher debate.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he agreed with Sen. Alexander.
"The best way to ensure we help all children is to let federal dollars follow the child wherever they attend school," Sen. Frist said.
About 372,000 of the more than 1 million people whose lives have been uprooted by the hurricane are school-aged children, records show.
Since as many as a third of the students in the hardest-hit areas of Louisiana were enrolled in private schools before the storm, Sen. Alexander said many private schools elsewhere are filling the void.
Of the more than 4,000 displaced Katrina students now attending classes in Tennessee, about 400 are in private schools, according to Tennessee Department of Education records.
Chattanooga’s Girls Preparatory School has eight students from the Gulf Coast, according to school spokeswoman Anne Exum.
In an e-mail, GPS Headmaster Randy Tucker said the school is not expecting government support. "The money is probably more greatly needed in the public sector right now than in the independent sector," he wrote.
McCallie School also has eight students from the hurricane’s impact zone, spokesman Billy Faires said.
"I don’t think any school anywhere took in these kids in hopes of making money," Mr. Faires said.
Sen. Alexander said the expenses incurred by schools absorbing the students include hiring new teachers, adding more bus routes and ordering more textbooks.
In Memphis, the city’s Catholic Diocese has enrolled more than 250 displaced students, Sen. Alexander said.
Michael Stein, president of the Margolin Hebrew Academy, who testified at Thursday’s packed hearing, said his school has hired more staff to help with the 25 displaced students now at the Memphis school. "We want to be treated equally in any federal assistance," Mr. Stein said. "We can do it, and have, with no assistance. But we can’t do it indefinitely."
The Bush administration is requesting up to $1.9 billion to reimburse school districts for the costs of educating relocated students, according to Henry Johnson, the assistant secretary of education overseeing the office of elementary and secondary schools. The administration proposes to pay each district 90 percent of the average per-pupil costs up to $7,500 per student, he said.
The federal government never has underwritten private and parochial tuition, and some Democrats at the hearing Thursday expressed doubts about the plan.
U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.,D - Conn DConn., who said he long has opposed vouchers, said he would give his reluctant approval as long as the Republicans keep it a shortterm program. "It is not a time to take advantage of the tragedy to rewrite some of the laws," he said.
Sen. Alexander said Washington lawmakers should set aside partisan politics and follow the example of regular citizens who are putting aside their religious, racial and other differences to help Katrina’s victims.