The Bush administration handed out the first hurricane relief payments to schools and colleges, awarding more than $250 million on Thursday to four Gulf Coast states as part of a $1.6 billion in recovery aid.

The lump-sump payments include help for private schools that some critics have assailed as a national voucher experiment. The money went out one week after President Bush signed the legislation into law.

The awards include $100 million each for Louisiana and Mississippi, $50 million for Texas and $3.75 million for Alabama. Additional funds will go out as states provide data on exactly how much is needed and for what purpose.

"We have severe devastation to the education community and experience there," Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said. "One thing is for sure is we need to get these resources out the door, and this is a good down payment."

The money will help cover costs for books, transportation, teachers and courses.

States are being asked to set aside money for private schools based roughly on the percentage of public and private schools in a state. Private schools could apply for the aid.

Some critics have assailed the $1.6 billion in recovery money because private schools, including religious ones, will be eligible for the money if they enrolled displaced students. The critics say that amounts to a voucher program that will sap money from public schools and spur a national expansion of vouchers.

An estimated 372,000 students have been forced into different schools because of the hurricanes, which struck in August and September.