Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated Roslyn Johnson Smith’s position in the New Orleans school system when Hurricane Katrina struck. She was a regional administrator at that time.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan apologized on a morning news program today for remarks he made during a recent television interview that “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.”
“It was a dumb thing to say,” Mr. Duncan said on the “Morning Joe” show broadcast by MSNBC.
Mr. Duncan had said in an interview, shown Jan. 31 on the TV One cable show “Washington Watch With Roland Martin,” that the education system in New Orleans before the storm was itself a disaster.
Excerpts of his remarks, released by the show two days before it aired, quoted the education secretary as saying that “it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that we have to do better. And the progress that it made in four years since the hurricane is unbelievable.”
This morning, Mr. Duncan apologized and explained what he had intended to communicate about schools in New Orleans, saying “my point was a simple one, that despite a devastating, devastating tragedy, [I’ve observed] phenomenal hard work, phenomenal progress in a short amount of time.”
Arne Duncan on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”
Some residents of New Orleans said yesterday they were offended by Mr. Duncan’s remarks during the TV One interview. Some said they believe Mr. Duncan sincerely cares about students in New Orleans, so they can look beyond what they see as the insensitivity of the remarks.
But others were not so gracious.
“While I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Duncan and his work as education secretary, this remark will be categorized as one of the most boneheaded statements made by an Obama administration official,” Tracie L. Washington, the co-director and lawyer for the Louisiana Justice Institute, wrote in an e-mail. She provides legal counsel for several charter schools in New Orleans.
Ms. Washington added that “the motivating force for change is the compassion that the disaster elicits, not the disaster itself,” and surmised that anyone who sees a silver lining to such events has never been a victim of one.
After the Roland Martin show had publicized Mr. Duncan’s original comments, the U.S. Department of Education issued a statement from the secretary elaborating on the remarks.
“As I heard repeatedly during my visits to New Orleans, for whatever reason, it took the devastating tragedy of the hurricane to wake up the community to demand more and expect better for their children,” he said.
Roslyn Johnson Smith, who was a regional administrator in the New Orleans school system when Hurricane Katrina struck the city on Aug. 28, 2005, questioned Mr. Duncan’s premise that the public schools in the city are much improved. After the storm, she was a founder of McDonogh 42 Charter School in the Treme neighborhood and blogged about that experience for Education Week’s Web site.
The state-run Recovery School District, which operates most of the city’s schools, has many of the same challenges and problems that the school system had before Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, she said.
“Children who are well below grade level, children who live in extreme poverty, families who are relocating constantly and looking for places to live, underpaid people, and undereducated adults: They’re all the same urban issues that existed pre-Katrina,” Ms. Smith said.
In his remarks, Mr. Duncan mentioned that he had visited John McDonogh High School in New Orleans, which New Orleans residents call John Mack High School, where he met students who had returned to school after missing months of schooling.
“New Orleans is doing a phenomenal job of getting that system to an entirely different level,” he said.
Ms. Smith responded to Mr. Duncan’s impressions of his visit by quipping, “They didn’t ask me to take him around. I could have tempered his opinion about how good things are.”
But Shannon L. Jones, the executive director of the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University in New Orleans, who was present when Mr. Duncan was at the high school, spoke well of the secretary’s visit.
“He genuinely cared about the students’ lives, asked questions, and stayed longer than he needed to stay,” she said.
Ms. Jones said Mr. Duncan “clearly used the wrong wording” in the television interview in suggesting that the hurricane was a good thing for New Orleans, but interpreted his intent as meaning that “the outcome of this terrible tragedy is that we get to rethink the way that we educate our students.”
However, she said she didn’t like how Mr. Duncan characterized the community as needing a “wake-up call,” as if the people of New Orleans didn’t care about their schools.
“I think we cared before,” Ms. Jones said, “It’s just now we have the resources in place we didn’t have before.”
She added that Mr. Duncan has proved that he’s committed to the students and schools in New Orleans, so “I can get past the statement.”
Paul G. Vallas, the superintendent of the Recovery School District and Mr. Duncan’s former boss in the Chicago school system, told The Washington Post that he had “no problem” with the education secretary’s comments about the hurricane’s impact on education.
Paul Pastorek, Louisiana’s superintendent of public education, was quoted by the paper as saying that Mr. Duncan’s remarks were “a strong statement” but “actually quite accurate.”