School & District Management

Duncan Apologizes for Katrina Remarks

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 02, 2010 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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”

From MSNBC.com

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.

‘Wrong Wording’?

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.”

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Webinar
From Chaos to Clarity: How to Master EdTech Management and Future-Proof Your Evaluation Processes
The road to a thriving educational technology environment is paved with planning, collaboration, and effective evaluation.
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Quiz What Do You Know About the Most Influential People in School Districts? Take Our Quiz
Answer 7 questions about the superintendent profession.
1 min read
Image of icons for gender, pay, demographics.
Canva
School & District Management Opinion I Invited My Students to Be the Principal for a Day. Here’s What I Learned
When I felt myself slipping into a springtime slump, this simple activity reminded me of my “why” as an educator.
S. Kambar Khoshaba
4 min read
052024 OPINION Khoshaba PRINCIPAL end the year with positivity
E+/Getty + Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management The Complicated Fight Over Four-Day School Weeks
Missouri lawmakers want to encourage large districts to maintain five-day weeks—even as four-day weeks grow more popular.
7 min read
Calendar 4 day week
iStock/Getty
School & District Management From Our Research Center Principal Salaries: The Gap Between Expectation and Reality
Exclusive survey data indicate a gap between the expectations and the realities of principal pay.
4 min read
A Black woman is standing on a ladder and looking into the distance with binoculars, in the background is an ascending arrow.
iStock/Getty