WASHINGTON – The schools devastated by Hurricane Katrina (search) and those scrambling to help them will receive unprecedented leeway in complying with the nation's top education law.
Federal education leaders said Wednesday that they will consider broad requests for relief from states in the overwhelmed Gulf Coast (search) — meaning schools could get significantly more time to raise yearly test scores or to ensure that all their teachers are highly qualified.
"You can be assured that the red tape will be put in the drawer," Deputy Education Secretary Ray Simon said after taking part in a White House meeting about hurricane response.
An estimated hundreds of thousands of displaced students will be attending school in a different district, if not a different state, as the school year begins. Education officials also pledged to relax rules on college aid, including timelines for students to pay their loans.
The hurricane rammed into the Gulf Coast on Monday, just east of New Orleans (search), and has since become one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. President Bush said Wednesday that "A lot of the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been completely destroyed."
As the enormity of the storm's fallout became clearer, schools and colleges in states such as Georgia, Kansas, Ohio, Virginia and Tennessee pledged to enroll displaced students.
"Children are being dislocated, literally," Simon said. "They're homeless. They're traveling hundreds of miles to find temporary homes, which means they will also have to travel several hundred miles to find schools."
In response, the Education Department told school chiefs in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas that they could expect fast, streamlined relief. Those state leaders are still figuring out what kind of help they will seek, but they are expected to jump on the department's offer to consider waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Henry Johnson, the assistant secretary over elementary and secondary education, is the former state school superintendent in Mississippi. He said that in five or six coastal counties in that state, half the schools that existed a week ago have been leveled. The other half, he said, are so badly damaged that it's unclear whether they can be used this year.
In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry (search) promised that his state's public schools would accept students from stranded families. That move came as Texas prepared to turn the Houston Astrodome into a makeshift refuge center for thousands who are holed up in New Orleans' swamped Superdome.
Perry said he knew an influx of students would strain his schools,but he assured school leaders they would get help with textbooks, transportation, food and waivers on class sizes.
Health and sheer survival, not academics, dominated the concerns of families affected by the devastating storm. But challenging school issues await. When children move across state lines, they must adjust to different curricula, testing, teachers and standards of grading.
Perhaps dozens of colleges and universities in the Gulf Coast region have sustained extensive damage, said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education.
"It remains to be seen how many of our extended college and university family could be among the missing and the dead," said Ward, whose group is the largest coalition of colleges and higher education groups in the nation.