Mon, Sep. 12, 2005
by BEN FELLER
WASHINGTON - Hurricane Katrina has booted at least 372,000 students from classrooms in Louisiana and Mississippi, and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said Monday there are no clear answers about who will pay to educate them.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Spellings gave the broadest assessment yet of how the hurricane has affected schools at the start of their year.
In Louisiana, more than 247,000 public and private school students have been displaced. The storm forced 489 schools to close. At least six parishes have destroyed or damaged buildings, she said.
In Mississippi, more than 125,000 students have been forced elsewhere. Some 226 schools in 30 districts are closed. Almost 30 schools have been destroyed.
Spellings declined to estimate how much it will cost states to rebuild school districts or serve displaced students - or how much the federal government will cover.
"I shouldn't be talking about the details that I'm in negotiations with the White House and the (Capitol) Hill on," Spellings said. "As soon as I can talk about it, I want to talk about it."
President Bush has told Spellings to develop a plan to provide aid for the states.
In the interview, Spellings said she will ask Congress for unprecedented authority to ease aspects of a federal law governing the education of homeless children. She already had pledged to consider using her powers to waive parts of the law known as No Child Left Behind, including requirements on yearly testing and teacher quality.
Still, Spellings cautioned: "I obviously don't think this is an opportunity for every state in the country to get 'No Child Left Behind is off this year.' We're just not there yet."
In a letter obtained Monday by The Associated Press, Spellings waived a requirement for Mississippi that normally forces school districts to spend some money to obtain federal aid. That means some of the states can cut or shift spending without penalty.
Spellings denied the state's request to excuse some districts from having to make yearly progress on math and reading tests. Because those tests will not be given until the spring, she said, it is too soon to waive the "linchpin" of federal accountability.
It was Spellings' first response to a state request for help dealing with Katrina. Her department has a request pending from Texas.
School districts nationwide are enrolling displaced students who have friends or family from the Gulf Coast - or children who just have nowhere else to go.
Universities are absorbing tens of thousands of college students stranded by the hurricane. In Louisiana, an estimated 73,000 such students from public and private schools have been displaced and 15 campuses have been closed, Spellings' office said.
"I think the school community has responded very well. Obviously, we're part of that," she said. "We've tried to make this as easy as possible, with all the tools that we have to bring to bear immediately. I'll be accountable for that."
Overall, more than 25 states say they have taken in displaced students.
Texas schools expect an influx of roughly 60,000 students. In a letter to the Education Department, Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said she expects to spend $7,500 per student this year. That means the price of educating evacuees could be at least $450 million.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has told the state it is eligible to be reimbursed for expenses such as temporary schools and mental health counselors. But the hiring of teachers and buying of books are not eligible expenses for relief aid, a FEMA memo says.
The Houston school system has taken in more than 3,000 students displaced students. If the figure reaches at least 5,000 students, as expected, the district's cost would be about $30 million, said spokesman Terry Abbott.
As for college students, Spellings said the government would not try to take back federal financial aid already given students who been forced to move to other schools for at least a semester. That could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, out of about $100 billion disbursed annually.
The department is considering what to do about aid distributed to help affected students who opt to take time off or work rather than enrolling at a new school, a spokeswoman said.
Associated Press writers April Castro, Suzanne Gamboa and Justin Pope contributed to this report.