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Leaving Behind the Children of Katrina

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Just when it seems that the nation has reached the worst of the incompetent response to the victims of Katrina, along comes a new wave of fresh horrors. The hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren displaced by the hurricane and the flooding will not be exempt from what No Child Left Behind refers to as "adequate yearly progress." In an interview on NPR this morning, Margaret Spellings, head of the Department of Education, said that she "did not want to write off this school year for these children." These are children who have endured things that no one -- not a child, not an adult, no one -- should have to have seen or lived through. These are children who have seen everything they know, everything they have ever had or known, washed away by a combination of nature and neglect. These are children whose parents and communities are traumatized beyond our imagining. And now, the one safe haven children have when everything else is gone, the school house, is guaranteeing that many if not most of them will be labeled as failures.

This doesn't just affect these children for this year. Schools are also required to show adequate yearly progress. If a school receives refugee children who are not exempt, even if the school would otherwise have been able to jump through the hoops that Washington has set for it, they will almost certainly be deemed failing for this school year. If that school continues to educate these students next year, they will again be guilty of not "improving" sufficiently. If a school does not "improve" for two years, federal sanctions can be imposed, including reductions in funding. So where does that leave the school districts who have opened their school doors to these children and families? Districts will have to make the impossible choice of doing what is right for some of the most vulnerable victims of Katrina, or of doing what is right for the children already enrolled in their schools. As a school board member, a mother, an American, and a human being, I know that I would hate to be forced by my federal government to have to make that choice.

At the very least, we should expect that the federal government should do everything in its power, including suspending the "adequate yearly progress" requirements for refugee children and the schools that are welcoming them, to allow Katrina's young victims to find some normalcy and hope in the midst of this horror. Margaret Spellings is on record now as willfully undermining the best efforts of local schools and districts to do what is right.