- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Earlier this week, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings lamented that there are no clear answers to where the 372,000 schoolchildren in Louisiana and Mississippi displaced by Hurricane Katrina will attend school or who will pay for their education.

For a major part of the answer, Mrs. Spellings need only look down the street toward her boss and mentor. With a stroke of a pen, President Bush could open educational opportunities in private and charter schools for thousands of displaced children.

The storm-ravaged schools no less than homes and businesses. Mrs. Spellings reports that more than 700 schools in the two states were closed, and many were destroyed, just as the new school year was getting started. Tens of thousands of the displaced students had been attending private schools. For the children rendered homeless by the hurricane, there is no time to spare in securing stable educational opportunities — but federal bureaucracy has left their fate far from certain.

Public schools across the nation, many of which already are overcrowded, have opened their doors. Many Catholic and other religious schools have accepted displaced children without charge. Congress already has appropriated $62 billion for emergency relief, but precious little will trickle down to schoolchildren. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says its funds cannot be used to hire teachers or buy books. Even worse, FEMA regulations prevent use of funds by religious relief providers.

By contrast, the 73,000 college students displaced by the storm can use their federal aid anywhere, at public, private or religious schools.

Mr. Bush can cut through this bureaucratic nonsense by issuing an executive order suspending the FEMA restrictions. In the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the elder President Bush suspended federal Davis-Bacon Act prevailing-wage requirements to ease rebuilding in southern Florida. Cutting through FEMA red tape is necessary to deliver precious educational opportunities, and the president owns the scissors.

Nor is there any constitutional impediment to providing such aid. The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that public funds may be used in religious schools so long as parents choose where to spend the funds. The only thing holding the president back is the weight of bureaucratic inertia, which already has exacted unacceptable costs in this catastrophe.

Likewise, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour possess broad emergency powers. State funding already had been appropriated before the hurricane struck. The governors should exercise their emergency authority to ensure that the funds will follow the children to whatever schools — public, private or charter — can pick up the slack.

For thousands of mostly low-income children in New Orleans, their public schools were devastated long before the hurricane arrived. Bob Herbert characterized the New Orleans public-school system in the New York Times as “one of the worst in the nation,” whose officials were “enveloped in a bureaucratic fog and the toxic smoke of corruption.” The system, 96 percent of whose students are black, graduates only about one-half of its students.

The school system’s problems were so severe that earlier this year, the state’s heavily Democratic House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to approve a school voucher program for New Orleans schoolchildren, which would have allowed them to choose private or religious schools. The bill was narrowly defeated in a Senate committee. More than 1,000 pre-kindergarten schoolchildren in the New Orleans area were receiving vouchers for private preschools before the hurricane struck.

If there could be a silver lining to this tragedy, it would be that children who previously had few prospects for a high-quality education now would have expanded options. Even with the children scattered to the winds, that prospect now can be a reality — if the parents are given power over their children’s education funds.

At an average public school expense of $7,500, the cost of educating the children displaced by Hurricane Katrina would total $2.8 billion — a tiny share of the $62 billion already appropriated. If state education funds followed the children, the federal cost would be even less. Because median private-school tuition is far less than public school costs, extending such choices to displaced families would lessen the relief cost even more, while giving the children opportunities they never had but desperately need.

Mr. Bush came into office as a “compassionate conservative,” vowing to encourage the delivery of social services by faith-based providers. Scores of private and religious schools stand ready to heed the call to offer high-quality educational opportunities to thousands of children left homeless and school-less by the hurricane. If ever we needed the president’s actions to match his rhetoric, the time is now.

Clint Bolick is president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice.

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