WASHINGTON- The Bush administration- a strong promoter of private and religious schools- wants to make it easier for schoolchildren displaced by Hurricane Katrina to attend private schools by pushing its pet voucher program.

The White House is proposing $1.9 billion in federal aid for students from kindergarten through the 12th grade whose schools were devastated by Katrina.

Under the proposal- which would have to be approved by Congress- the government would provide $7,500 to any displaced family that would prefer to send a child to a private school rather than to a public school, even if the student attended a public school before the storm.

The administration has used the hurricane as a golden opportunity to push its ideology and antipathy to government as symbolized by public schools.

The administration's drive to make private-school vouchers available to student evacuees appeared ideological to Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, who said: "It is really a tone-deaf response to the crisis. It is a real grab to get an ideological position across that they haven't been able to achieve under normal circumstances.

What is it about the public school system that this president doesn't like?

Or is it his patrons on the hard-core religious right who are trying to undermine the indispensable public school system in this country?

It is obviously a back-door move by the administration to enhance federal funding of parochial schools.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the top Democrat on the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said of the administration's move: "Instead of reopening ideological battles, we should be focused on reopening schools and getting people the help they need."

The National Education Association has requested waivers to exempt the students from the testing rigors of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The schools are welcoming the displaced students "with open arms," but they are appealing for exemption from the testing.

Incredibly, the Education Department, headed by Secretary Margaret Spellings, said it would consider the waivers on a "case by case" basis.

Before Katrina struck, the law was being challenged in court by Texas, Massachusetts and Vermont, which claim that they are not getting enough federal funds to pay for the required testing.

Meantime, we are left with the sad reality that the White House is using the worst storm in U.S. history as an opportunity to push its conservative agenda.

(c) 2005 Hearst Newspapers