Under President Bush's plan to cover most of the cost of educating students displaced by Hurricane Katrina, parents could enroll their children in a private or religious school this year at federal expense, even if they had gone to public schools back home, administration officials said yesterday.
In proposing $1.9 billion in aid for kindergartners through 12th-graders whose schools were ruined by the storm, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings originally said the administration was setting aside $488 million for private-school tuition and other help, to re-create as normal an environment as possible for the uncommonly large segment of children from New Orleans who had attended Catholic schools.
Yesterday, however, as new fine print of the proposal emerged, White House and Education Department spokesmen confirmed that the government payment -- as much as $7,500 per child -- would be given for a year to any displaced family that now prefers an alternative to public schools. "Parents may choose to send children to private schools. They may not. But this is their choice," said Susan Aspey, the Education Department's spokeswoman.
According to administration documents, the $488 million allotment is an estimate based on the fact that about 61,000 children had attended private schools in the four Louisiana parishes that were affected most heavily. Asked whether the president would be willing to spend more on private schools if additional parents asked for such help, Aspey replied, "It's far too soon to speculate. Right now, these are just concepts."
The expansive eligibility for private-school payments intensified the dispute over Bush's approach to providing federal relief to people and places harmed by the hurricane. Democrats on Capitol Hill and public education advocates had begun to complain that the president was using the catastrophe to weave into legislation a version of federal funding of vouchers for private education, which the administration has sought, unsuccessfully, since 2001.
"It makes it even worse," Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said of the idea that all displaced families could obtain money for private schools. "It is really a tone-deaf response to the crisis. It is a real grab to get an ideological position across that they haven't been able to achieve under normal circumstances."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), ranking Democrat on the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said, "Instead of reopening ideological battles, we should be focused on reopening schools and getting people the help that they need."
Some congressional Republicans have embraced Bush's idea. A spokesman for Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), the panel's chairman, said he has not decided whether to add money for private schools into bipartisan legislation providing educational help that the panel drafted last week.
Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement, "These children are being welcomed by schools across the nation, both public and private, and we need to support all the affected students and families."