Separate but Equal? Schooling of Evacuees Provokes Debate

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The 372,000 schoolchildren displaced by Hurricane Katrina are stirring an old debate about whether separate education can really be equal. A number of states, including Utah and Texas, want to teach some of the dispersed Gulf Coast students in shelters instead of in local public schools, a stance supported by the Bush administration and some private education providers. But advocates for homeless families and civil rights oppose that approach. At the center of the dispute is whether the McKinney-Vento Act, a landmark federal law banning educational segregation of homeless children, should apply to the evacuees.

In addition, because many of the stranded students are black, holding classes for them at military bases, convention centers or other emergency housing sites could run afoul of racial desegregation plans still operating in some school districts.

Separate education for the evacuees is "unconscionable," says Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. "Many states have worked extremely hard to comply with the law and give these kids a regular school experience. The federal Department of Education is seeking to undermine the law at a time when it is most needed."

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