Before adjourning for the holidays, Congress passed the Hurricane Education Recovery Act, which provides $1.6 billion in assistance to public and private schools and their students affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The funds, which must be applied for, are to be distributed by the U.S. Department of Education through state education agencies. Some $750 million has already been appropriated to restart schools in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas.

Public and non-public schools educating K-12 students displaced by the hurricanes can receive up to $6,000 per student and $7,500 per disabled or special education student under the new law. As of Dec. 3, Texas had the most displaced students, 41,000, although the accuracy of such figures is subject to dispute.

At a time when federal funds for public schools have been cut, critics of the new law have asked why public tax money is being given to private and religious schools.

Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, called the bill part of the worst assault on public education in American history. “Taxpayers will be forced to pay for a nationwide voucher program,” Weaver said. “Religious schools will be allowed to receive taxpayer dollars and proselytize and discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion.”

Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, denounced the legislation and said it sets a disturbing precedent. American Federation of Teachers President Edward J. McElroy said the Bush administration is using the relief efforts in New Orleans and elsewhere as a laboratory for its misguided policies.

In a related development, the Wall Street Journal reported that two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit, 40 members of a conservative congressional caucus met at the Heritage Foundation to plan the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast region. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) told the Journal, “The desire to bring conservative, free-market ideas to the Gulf Coast is white hot.”

The document that evolved from that meeting is titled “From Tragedy to Triumph: Principled Solutions for Rebuilding Lives and Communities.” Some of the “principled solutions” are private school vouchers, deregulation, tax breaks, cuts in social services, limits on a victim’s right to sue and weakened anti-discrimination, wage and environmental laws. “Eliminate any entitlement expectations for disaster relief,” the lawmakers said.

The big-business-oriented plan for New Orleans is to not rebuild large areas where Black and/or poor people used to live, such as the 9th Ward and eastern part of the city. The Bring Back New Orleans Commission recently proposed a plan that reflects this very thinking.

The citizens of New Orleans have little or no power over the planning or rebuilding. The city’s imposition of a four-month moratorium on the rebuilding of its most damaged neighborhoods, combined with its willingness to liberally use eminent domain laws to take over property for public use, infuriated residents at a recent meeting to discuss the commission’s plan.

Joseph C. Canizaro, a real estate developer and a major fundraiser for President Bush, heads the commission’s urban planning committee. Although New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who appointed the commission, can accept or alter the proposed plan, considerably more power resides in the state rebuilding commission, which controls how the billions of federal dollars in aid is spent.

Members of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus see political motives behind these actions. They say that because Blacks are viewed as most likely to be Democrats or progressive voters, the Gulf Coast region can’t be transformed into an ultraconservative region without a decrease in the Black population. New Orleans has a 67 percent African American population. In the eyes of conservatives, Hurricane Katrina accomplished “the removal” of this section of the electorate, and the rebuilding plan must prevent many of its African American citizens from returning.