Senate Votes $1.66 Billion for Storm-Displaced Pupils

Posted on November 4, 2005 In Press Releases

Senate Votes $1.66 Billion for Storm-Displaced Pupils
Published: November 4, 2005

Published in the New York Times

WASHINGTON, Nov. 3 – After years of bitter, often partisan clashes on broadening federal assistance to private and parochial schools, the Senate approved by a unanimous voice vote on Thursday a $1.66 billion aid package for public and private schools across the country that have taken in students displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

The legislation was tacked onto a broader budget bill after the Senate rejected, 68 to 31, a proposal that would have created a school voucher program to give federal money directly to parents of Gulf Coast students for private schools.

The plan that passed would give the money to public school districts, which would then make payments to private and parochial schools, depending on how many Hurricane Katrina victims they enrolled. The one-year plan provides $6,000 per student, and $7,500 per special education student.

The issue of school vouchers has traditionally been politically divisive, with proponents, mostly Republican, asserting that vouchers would give poorer families a way out of bad schools and compel faltering public schools to improve. Critics, largely Democrats and teachers’ unions, say vouchers would siphon federal money away from public schools and blur the line between church and state.

But the Senate measure passed so easily, in part, because of widespread sympathy for the storm’s survivors, and in part because of a chief co-sponsor many considered to be unlikely: Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Mr. Kennedy, one of the Democrats’ leading voices on education, has long opposed school voucher programs. That track record helped assuage the concerns of other voucher opponents, mostly Democrats, who joined Republicans to vote for the bill, said a senior Senate Democratic aide who refused to be identified because he was talking about internal party deliberations.

But other opponents of vouchers were not mollified and harshly criticized the Senate. “School board members are disappointed and angered by the United States Senate’s vote to create what amounts to a national private school voucher program under the guise of emergency hurricane relief for schools,” said Joan Schmidt, president of the National School Boards Association, in a written statement.

The debate over how to assist the approximately 372,000 students displaced by Hurricane Katrina began when the White House articulated a $2.8 billion initiative in mid-September to help private and public schools. Because the plan would have given money directly to parents, Mr. Kennedy denounced it as a back-door effort to introduce school vouchers. He was later bluntly criticized by religious groups, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations.

Over the next month, Mr. Kennedy visited the Gulf Coast, met with storm survivors displaced to Massachusetts and with religious leaders like the Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Laura Capps, a spokeswoman. As a result, he joined with Senator Michael B. Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, to introduce an aid package with a provision for helping private as well as public schools, Ms. Capps said.

“Today I am proud that the Senate has put aside politics and ideological battles to get the necessary aid to these schools and to these children without further delay,” Mr. Kennedy said Thursday in a written statement. “My wife is from Southern Louisiana, so we feel a special appreciation for the way that so many schools are ministering to those who lost so much.”

Mr. Kennedy has insisted that his bill is not a voucher program. Ms. Capps pointed out that the bill would not give money directly to parents or private schools, but would funnel it instead through the local school district. She noted that the bill prevented federal money from being used for religious instruction. Most important, the aid is temporary, lasting only until Aug. 1, 2006.

Religious groups that back vouchers agreed and said the measure was consistent with Mr. Kennedy’s record. “Senator Kennedy has always been on the side of the poor, and you can’t be any poorer than the kids from Louisiana who have lost everything,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The senior Senate Democratic aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Mr. Kennedy had met with other Democratic senators before the vote on Thursday to allay concerns that the bill could usher in vouchers.

In the House, an aid package that would have given grants to parents whose children were attending public and parochial schools was defeated in committee, but Republican leaders are trying to salvage it. Opponents of the aid to private schools said they would continue to try to convince lawmakers that even though the aid was envisioned as temporary, it would be difficult to eliminate.

Bruce Hunter, assistant executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, a lobbying group for school superintendents, said: “If you think this will sunset, then you believe the tooth fairy will leave a dollar under your pillow tonight. Voucher proponents fervently hope that this is permanent.”

But proponents of the Kennedy bill emphasized that this was a temporary measure. “This is an exceptional circumstance,” said Nathan Diament, director of public policy at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, adding that “the right thing to do is to help everybody.”

Nathan J. Diament is director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

Published in the New York Times