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Katrina in the classroom

KATRINA-BUFFETED STUDENTS deserve all the help, public and private, we can give. But they are not entitled to a private education at public expense -- especially not half a billion dollars’ worth.

The Bush administration’s offer to shoulder the financial burden of educating the children of Katrina is both prudent and generous. The president deserves applause for his proposal to allocate $1.9 billion -- up to $7,500 per student -- for public schools that must accommodate droves of Katrina refugees. Many of these schools are moving portable classrooms to their sports fields and parking lots and hiring armies of new teachers. Less admirable, however, is the president’s plan to offer an additional $488 million to parents who want to send their children to private or parochial schools.

It’s true that large numbers of children in New Orleans attended private or parochial schools before the hurricane. But that does not entitle even the tempest-tossed to privileges they previously enjoyed at their own expense.

A little flexibility is in order, especially if a public school is brimming and a private school has openings for a few students. But an infusion of almost half a billion dollars into private and parochial schools would, like any voucher program, shift money from public schools that accept all students and toward schools that can pick and choose students based on their ability, background or religious beliefs.

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Though U.S. Education Department officials say they hope for this to be a one-year anomaly, they are so far unwilling to commit to ending it come June. Congress should refuse to play along.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is taking a more reasoned approach to states that are hoping the hurricane will help them get blanket waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. Spellings is rightly planning to evaluate these claims on a campus-by-campus basis -- no free hall passes.

But her dilemma points out another weakness in legislation that is already troubled. It’s clearly unfair for a school in, say, Houston to be held responsible for the proficiency of thousands of new students, most from the low-performing Louisiana schools. It’s equally unfair to grade any school -- and this particularly affects schools in California, with their transient low-income population -- on the performance of new students who might have arrived at its doors through the more metaphoric storms of poverty and family upheaval.


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