WASHINGTON – Education Secretary Margaret Spellings (search) on Wednesday defended a White House plan to help Hurricane Katrina evacuees pay for private schooling.
Spellings also warned that education programs may be cut to help pay for President Bush's disaster aid plan. Neither she nor her aides identified what those cuts might be.
In a back-to-school speech, her first as secretary, Spellings also admonished parents to show as much consumer interest in their kids' education as they do on restaurants and travel.
Overall, the devastating Gulf Coast hurricane, which has displaced roughly 372,000 students from Mississippi and Louisiana, was the dominant topic in Spellings' remarks.
Bush wants Congress to approve up to $1.9 billion to cover 90 percent of the tab for educating those students, an unprecedented federal share. Typically, the federal government contributes less than 10 percent of education spending despite an increasingly hands-on role.
The Bush proposal has drawn fire from some educators and Democratic lawmakers because it would allow public money to flow to private schools.
Spellings said that up to $7,500 would go to each displaced student -- regardless of what type of school students want to attend or whether they were in a private school before the storm. A disproportionately high number of affected children attended private schools.
"This was a hurricane that affected every family, including those in private schools," she said. "And the president believes, as do I, that we should not penalize those families because they chose to select private schools."
The voucher provision could delay a massive hurricane relief package that's still being shaped. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said Wednesday: "We are committed to helping displaced school children wherever they are. But instead of reopening ideological battles, we should be focused on reopening schools and getting people the help that they need."
Spellings, who also wants Congress to expand her power to waive federal requirements on schools, said the aid for private schools is not meant to be a national voucher program.
"This is a temporary situation," Spellings said. "This is a one-year relief aid package."
As the first mother of school-age children to serve as secretary, Spellings encouraged parents to take a more active role in their children's education. She has an eighth-grade daughter in a public middle school and a daughter who is a freshman at a private college.
"Take a look at your kids' after-school schedule this week -- the swimming, soccer and football," Spellings said. "The numbers on your child's report card should be as important as the numbers on the scoreboard."