- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

More than 135,000 public-school-age children in Louisiana were displaced by Hurricane Katrina; another 5,200 students attended private and religious schools. School districts around the country are scrambling to accommodate them and their counterparts from the Gulf Coast. Hundreds of teachers are being hired, textbooks and computers are being bought, and adjustments are being made to transportation and cafeteria budgets. While it is welcoming to see local and state school bureaucracies move so quickly, we hope it wasn’t in anticipation of federal money. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will not reimburse them for all education expenses?

A Sept. 10 memo from Gary Jones, FEMA’s federal coordinating officer, said FEMA will reimburse Texas for providing temporary classrooms, mental-health counselors and computers for hurricane evacuees. However, it appears that Texas and other affected states will have to absorb some costs on their own, because, as the memo states, “Hiring of additional teachers and purchase of books is not eligible at this time under the [Public Assistance] program.” Moreover, federal regulations prohibit FEMA from reimbursing churches or other faith-based groups that provide direct relief to displaced families, and FEMA cannot fund or reimburse private and religious schools that take in displaced children.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay wants rules relaxed so that the children can use vouchers to attend private schools. Mr. Delay’s is a reasonable request, one that would aid parents as they begin to move into cities that they eventually call “home” and as, even amid the uncertainties of long-term reconstruction of the Gulf Coast, FEMA reforms begin to take shape. As Clint Bolick, president of the Alliance for School Choice, said yesterday: “Private schools can provide an educational life preserver for the children who are victims of Hurricane Katrina. We call upon the president, Congress and state legislators to cut the red tape and seek every possible educational option for these children.”

Like the housing in New Orleans and elsewhere, most of the public and private schools sustained considerable damage or are no longer standing. The Center for Education Reform has identified charter schools that can accommodate displaced students, and the Council for American Private Education is doing the same.

The early days of the hurricane aftermath prove how bureaucratic wheels — tangled by their own red tape — often come to a grinding halt. While congressional and state legislative action may be needed in the long-term, an executive order from the president can suspend the FEMA faith-based and school-related restrictions in the short run. Let’s get this done sooner rather than later.

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