Statement of Sen. Alexander - Katrina's Displaced School Children

Posted on September 22, 2005

-As prepared- Hurricane Katrina displaced over one million people, at least 20 times more than in any other disaster handled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 372,000 of those displaced by Katrina are school-aged children, in kindergarten through the twelfth grade. Today we are here to see how we can help all of Katrina’s 372,000 displaced school children. Many communities are already struggling to meet these challenges. Texas, for example, expects to enroll as many as 60,000 students. Houston Independent School District, which has enrolled roughly 4,700 displaced students, has hired 180 new teachers, added 37 new bus routes and ordered about 10,000 new textbooks to accommodate the students. Georgia has accepted more than 9,000 students, Alabama almost 5,400 students, and my home state of Tennessee has enrolled nearly 3,500 students. Public school systems across the country, and especially those nearest Louisiana and Mississippi, are working hard to absorb these new students, as I just outlined. They are absorbing most of the affected children. But private schools are joining in the effort, too. This should not surprise us, since the four Louisiana parishes hit the hardest by Katrina had nearly one third or 61,000 of their 187,000 students in private schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education. 50,000 students from the Catholic Archdiocese of Greater New Orleans are displaced. For example, in Texas 4,000 of the 60,000 displaced students have been enrolled in private institutions. In Baton Rouge, according to a report Tuesday morning on National Public Radio, there are five to ten thousand displaced private school students who have no school to attend. To accommodate them, the Catholic Diocese in Baton Rouge is struggling to establish satellite schools – some located great distances away – which these students will attend at night. In Memphis, where so many displaced students have gone, the willingness of private schools to accept these students is a huge help to overcrowded public schools. The Memphis City schools have enrolled over 650 students and the adjacent Shelby County public school district has enrolled over 600 new children, a difficult burden in a school system already growing by 1,000 students and one new school building each year. The Memphis Catholic Diocese has enrolled over 250 students to help share the load. So how should we, at the federal level, respond to this challenge? Perhaps we would be wise to follow the example of the people back home. Two weeks ago, in Maryville, Al Gore flew a planeload of evacuees from New Orleans into one of Tennessee’s most Republican counties. Nobody asked about anybody’s politics. Everybody just pitched in to help. Last weekend, members of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Nashville sent $80,000 and a truck load of clothes and Clorox to southern Mississippi. “The Presbyterians are here,” one grateful Mississippi man called his friends on his cell phone to say, “and they have Clorox.” When the Clorox was passed out, nobody asked if anybody else was a Presbyterian. And now, this Sunday, the headline in the Tennessean – the Nashville newspaper – was “Private Schools Welcome Those Displaced by Katrina.” According to the newspaper, “a growing number of private schools in Middle Tennessee . . . have volunteered to help students displaced by Katrina. Many of them are also waiving or drastically discounting tuition and fees for these students and some also accept evacuees from public schools.” “ . . . these children are in crisis. They have been displaced, but they have found a home,” said the principal of Father Ryan High School who has accepted 20 students and is trying to accommodate every student who shows up. Father Ryan is waiving the $6,880 tuition, the $350 activity fee and the $500 in books for displaced students it simply calls “transfers.” “It’s not all about money,” said the principal. “There is no amount of money that equals being family.” That’s how the folks back in my home state of Tennessee have responded. I suspect similar stories can be found across the country. People didn’t ask about your politics or your religion, they simply asked, “How can I help?” and then they went and did it. I make these points because I hope to follow in that same spirit. How can the federal government help all the displaced schoolchildren? That’s what we’re here to discuss. And then we should get to it. Right now there are two proposals for what we should do: President Bush has put forward his idea, and Chairman Enzi and Senator Kennedy have joined together to put forward another. It’s pretty easy to figure out what to do about kids who ended up at public schools. We have two suggestions on the table. Both say money should follow the children for one year to the schools at which they have enrolled. There is a different amount in each proposal, but the approach is the same. But if we follow our traditional approach, we will have trouble helping those children that are in private schools. There’s nothing traditional about what happened in Hurricane Katrina. We need to help them on a temporary emergency basis. If we follow the example of our constituents back home, we’ll worry less about which school they attend and more about how we can help them get through this tough time. Here’s what the Washington Post had to say on this topic in an editorial this morning: “Just as it's important not to sneak in an enormous new federal program for ideological reasons, it's also important that neither Democrats, teachers unions nor anyone else rule out for ideological reasons what could be a useful tool for distributing relief funds. There could be pragmatic reasons to put displaced students in private or parochial schools: if, say, school districts are overcrowded, if students have special needs or if that happens to be where they ended up. So it might make sense to attach a sum to each student -- whether it's called a voucher or something else -- as long as that sum is given out in a limited number of places and for a limited time, certainly not longer than the current school year. “. . . any solution that would allow students to finish the year with a minimum of fuss and disruption to themselves and their families, and that would prevent school districts in Texas and elsewhere from being unduly burdened, should be welcomed.” So I would propose this: that we give the money for education to the states, and let that money follow students who have been displaced by Katrina to any accredited school – public or private – that they attend. The purpose here would NOT be to create a big new voucher program. Rather, this would be a one-year, temporary solution for every child that’s been affected. That strikes me as the fairest approach. I hope our witnesses today will comment on that idea or the President’s proposal or the Enzi-Kennedy proposal or suggest their own ideas. My plan is to take the ideas from our witnesses here and put together some solid legislation to help get this done. We have a distinguished group of witnesses to help us do so. Assistant Secretary Henry Johnson is here from the Education Department. Michael Stein, President of Margolin Hebrew Academy in Memphis which has taken in 24 additional students is here. Sister Mary Michaeline Green, Superintendent of the Baton Rouge Catholic Diocese Schools, whom I heard on NPR the other day, is here. Rodney R. LaFon, Superintendent of the St. Charles Parish Public School District, is here to share the efforts his district is making to educate displaced students. Daryl Gates, a middle school teacher who is educating some of Katrina’s special ed students, is here to share what his students are experiencing and need. We are also joined by my colleague and friend Senator Landrieu from Louisiana who has been tireless in her efforts to help the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by Katrina in her state. Before we begin with the testimony, let me ask my colleague Senator Dodd if he’d like to make any opening remarks.