IN AN UNUSUAL display of timeliness, both the House and Senate education committees have produced pragmatic legislation offering federal funding for the education of children displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Both bills would link concrete sums directly to individual children. Both systems are temporary, ending after this school year. And both would allow what has generally been taboo: providing federal money to private as well as public schools.
Both bills nevertheless reflect the preferences and anxieties of the people who wrote them. The bipartisan Senate version, sponsored by Sens. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), is the more cautious of the two. The authors want accountability; they do not want private schools spending the money on religious instruction, and they do not want to create an extra incentive for children to go to private school. So they would have the federal money go through the "normal" channels: from the federal government to state educational agencies to school districts, which have experience doling out federal dollars, including to private schools, which sometimes get federal funding for special education and other programs even now. To obtain funds, schools would have to collect parental applications and send them to school districts, which would then disburse the money.
The House version, by contrast, reflects the concerns of Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House education committee, about bureaucratic hang-ups -- federal funding usually takes a long time to get through the "normal" process -- and his desire to offer flexibility to Katrina families who may still be in transit. The House bill proposes the creation of family reimbursement accounts, bypassing the states and school districts altogether. Parents would apply for and receive account numbers directly, and they would give their number to the school enrolling their child. The school would then seek reimbursement.
Neither bill, we are glad to note, proposes to create a national voucher program, or indeed to create any program lasting longer than this school year. For that reason it is premature to attack either piece of legislation on the grounds that it represents a "voucher" program in disguise. (Mr. Kennedy, a historic opponent of vouchers, is already a particular target of attacks.)
Neither committee, we also note, is yet certain whether and how such a project would be funded. If a Katrina education bill passes, it will probably be after a good chunk of the school year is over; speed and efficiency should therefore be politicians' biggest concerns. For that reason, it would make the most sense to use current systems for distributing money -- which will require not inventing an agency or an accounting system from scratch, but finding ways to expedite the process. We hope Congress and the White House will see their way toward a compromise on this issue.