Hurricanes Katrina and Rita:

Temporary Emergency Impact Aid Provided Education Support for Displaced Students

GAO-11-839: Published: Sep 7, 2011. Publicly Released: Sep 7, 2011.

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George A. Scott
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In August and September 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated large portions of the U.S. Gulf Coast, resulting in nearly 2,000 deaths and severe damage to 305,000 houses and apartments. Thousands of families relocated to communities throughout the United States and enrolled their children in local public or private schools. Some families who remained in the devastated areas enrolled their children in schools other than their home schools because their home schools had been seriously damaged or destroyed. Congress appropriated $880 million for the Temporary Emergency Impact Aid for Displaced Students (Emergency Impact Aid) program to assist local educational agencies (school districts) and private schools with the costs of educating these displaced students. Funds were for costs incurred during the 2005-2006 school year, and could be used for a variety of purposes, including compensating teachers, purchasing curriculum materials, leasing portable classrooms, providing counseling services, and covering reasonable transportation costs. The U.S. Department of Education (Education) awarded Emergency Impact Aid funds to 49 states and the District of Columbia based on the count of displaced students enrolled on quarterly dates selected by each state, as reported by public and participating private schools. Each quarter, on the basis of these counts, states received $1,500 per displaced student without disabilities and $1,875 per displaced student with disabilities. States could keep up to 1 percent of funds for administrative expenses, and were required to disburse the remaining funds to local school districts. Districts were allowed to spend up to 2 percent of funds for administration and, similar to states, were required to disburse the remaining funds to public and participating private schools within their jurisdictions. Education did not require states or districts to report how funds were used, but directed districts to maintain records of expenditures. While the program we reviewed has expired, legislation was introduced in Congress in 2011 that includes provisions that would require Education to provide emergency impact aid in certain circumstances involving presidentially declared disasters, and would give Education discretion to provide such aid in other circumstances if a state is experiencing a catastrophic incident. On the basis of congressional request, we answered the following questions: (1) What is known about how many students were served by the Emergency Impact Aid program in key states? (2) What challenges, if any, did districts and private schools face in accessing the program or obtaining the required student verification? (3) How did states, districts, and private schools report using the funds and what is known about whether the funds covered the costs of serving displaced students?, and (4) How did Education support states in implementing the program?

States reported to Education the number of displaced students served quarterly, as required, but the total number of students served is unknown. Districts were required to report the number of displaced students enrolled in public and participating private schools on a specific date each quarter during the 2005-2006 school year. According to national data from Education, enrollment was highest in the first quarter with 152,000 students served, and enrollment dropped to its lowest point in the fourth quarter with 132,000 students served. Enrollment may have declined throughout the school year as displaced students re-enrolled in their home schools. According to officials in selected districts and private schools, many displaced students began returning home in winter 2005. Selected districts and private schools had few challenges accessing the program, but officials found verifying student eligibility difficult. Most officials from selected districts generally did not report difficulties participating in the program or accessing funds. However, officials from 2 states said some districts that served displaced students chose not to apply for funding in part because of compressed application timelines, potential administrative burden, or serving few displaced students. District and private school officials told us many displaced students lacked documents verifying their previous address, such as a driver's license or utility bill. In such cases, some officials said they accepted other types of verification, such as report cards, or accepted parental affirmation of eligibility. Our analysis of expenditure data reported to us by 9 of our 13 selected districts indicates that 88 percent of funds was spent on instruction and about 12 percent was spent on other costs associated with serving displaced students. Officials from selected districts described a range of Emergency Impact Aid uses, generally related to funding staff salaries and benefits. Four districts specifically reported using funds to hire new staff. Three districts reported that they funded existing staff, but did not hire new staff. Soon after Hurricane Katrina, Education officials contacted states and districts in hurricane-affected areas and sent officials to affected areas to discuss needs. Prior to the Emergency Impact Aid program's authorization in December 2005, Education also advised districts that they could enroll and obtain funding for displaced students through the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program and used existing authorities to grant waivers of federal requirement to maintain 90 percent of prior year's state and local education spending to qualify for other Education funding.

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