Houston Independent School District superintendent Abelardo Saavedra's week started poorly, got worse and then, thanks to the healing powers of federal dollars, took a turn toward the jubilant. Saavedra's 305 schools are educating more of the Gulf Coast's evacuee students than any other district in Texas, which in turn is housing more evacuees than any other state. On Tuesday, all that generosity seemed to backfire when a group of Katrina kids billeted in the Astrodome rumbled with local Texans at one of Saavedra's schools, sending five students to jail and three to a hospital. The scene did not recur, but by Thursday, Saavedra had an even greater problem: math. The long-term cost of serving 4,700 evacuee students, times an average estimated annual student cost of $7,500, equals a total of $35.2 million-- and the pre-hurricane Bush Administration commitment was only 9% of pupil cost.
On Friday, however, Saavedra was ecstatic. At a press conference in one of the Houston district's middle schools, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced that the Federal Government would request $2.6 billion from Congress to pay 90% of the average cost of educating each Katrina student, whether publicly or privately, up to a ceiling of $7,500 apiece. "From 9% to 90%," Saavedra said afterward, with the dazed elation of a lottery winner.
Spellings' announcement had a lot of school administrators smiling--although a key component angered some of the legislators who will eventually have to vote on it. A proposed set-aside of $488 million for private schools (which, if private-leaning evacuees seek out the kind of education they left behind, would be mostly Catholic) represents a historic federal bankrolling of those institutions and their overtly religious subset, and it drew quick fire from Democrats like Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy. He pronounced himself "disappointed that "[Bush] has proposed ... relief using such a politically charged approach," while California Representative George Miller complained that "to launch a new private-school voucher program in the midst of a disaster response creates a quagmire that could hinder rather than expedite the return to school for tens of thousands of students."
The ramifications of Spellings' bombshell will take months, if not years, to sort out, but most agree that a major federal foray into emergency school funding was desperately needed. The fate of 372,000 displaced children is at least as important to the nation as the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, and unlike the payment of rebuilding costs, education isn't a choice--it's a government guarantee. Yet for days it appeared the feds might foist much of the obligation on state school systems, 47 of which are hosting Katrina students. Most evaluated the problem and decided to teach first and ask questions later. "If that 6-year-old kid coming off that transport plane was yours, how would you want him taken care of?" Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee asked TIME. Huckabee hopes for federal reimbursement, "but if not, we will have done the right thing, and I believe we will have no regrets about how we handled matters."