WASHINGTON (AP) -- Congress on Thursday approved $1.6 billion in hurricane relief for schools
and colleges, including private-school aid that critics assailed as a national voucher experiment.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings promised speedy delivery of the money wherever it is needed and pledged to work with state school chiefs to make that happen.
"The education community's response to Katrina has been overwhelming," she said. "Schools across the country have opened their doors and hearts to these children. They need and deserve this support."
The money was in a defense spending bill that the House passed in a final push of 2005 work. The Senate approved the spending on Wednesday.
Some $750 million will help Gulf Coast public and private schools reopen, months after hurricanes Katrina and Rita turned the region into a disaster zone.
An additional $645 million will help public and private schools elsewhere pay for teaching, transportation and supplies for displaced students. An estimated 372,000 students have been forced into different schools because of the hurricanes.
There also is $200 million in college aid. Almost all will go for the recovery of Louisiana and Mississippi campuses, with some money set aside for colleges nationwide that have taken in evacuated students.
The final $5 million is for the education of homeless children.
"This agreement will allow much needed relief to finally reach the students, families and schools impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita," Rep. John Boehner, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said before the vote. The hurricanes hit in August and September.
The school aid money became controversial when the issue of vouchers came into play.
Under the one-year deal approved by Congress, schools that enroll displaced students can be reimbursed up to $6,000 per student, or $7,500 for each student with disabilities.
The money will flow through public school districts, which will be responsible for passing along money to private schools, including religious schools, with eligible students.
Supporters said their plan is not a voucher program because public money will go to private schools as reimbursement for helping students, not to parents as a private-school coupon.
Critics see it as a voucher program that will sap money from public schools and perhaps set a precedent for a national expansion.
"Inserting a voucher scheme into the defense bill under the guise of national security represents an end-run around the legislative process," said Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union.
Congress has made direct attempts to encourage voucher experiments for years. It has approved only one, private-school scholarships for poor children in the District of Columbia.
Clint Bolick, president of the Alliance for School Choice, said the bill was a bipartisan victory for families and children. For students forced out of their home schools, the aid means that "at least for a year, their educational prospect are bright," Bolick said.
An earlier version of the bill included a ban on federal money being used for "religious instruction, proselytization or worship." The final version includes no such restriction.
Higher education representatives had asked for $500 million. Colleges and universities in the Gulf Coast have scaled back faculty, staff and courses as they try to recover.
Of the $200 million approved for college aid, $190 million will be split evenly between the governing higher education boards in Mississippi and Louisiana for them to distribute. Private colleges and universities are expected to be eligible to apply for that money.
The remaining $10 million in college help will be available to Spellings to give to universities that have enrolled evacuated students.