School & District Management

Duncan’s Katrina Remarks Spark Debate in New Orleans

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 09, 2010 4 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s recent remarks about a connection between Hurricane Katrina and school reform in New Orleans have focused new attention on the schools there and drawn divergent reactions from the local education community.

Mr. Duncan apologized last week for saying in an interview aired Jan. 31 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 Feb. 2 on the “Morning Joe” show on MSNBC.

But Paul G. Vallas, the superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District in New Orleans and Mr. Duncan’s former boss in the Chicago school system, said in an e-mail to Education Week that there was no need for Mr. Duncan to apologize.

“Like the rest of us, Arne knows that Hurricane Katrina was devastating and tragic,” Mr. Vallas wrote. “The fact remains that school reform in New Orleans prior to Katrina was going nowhere, and post-Katrina, we’re building a new school district that for the first time provides children with high-quality educational choices.”

Here are some excerpts from a transcript of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s interview with Roland Martin of TV One for the show that aired Jan. 31.

“I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and this is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘we have to do better.’

“And the progress that they’ve made in four years since the hurricane is unbelievable. They have a chance to create a phenomenal school district. Long way to go, but that—that city was not serious about its education. Those children were being desperately underserved prior, and the amount of progress and the amount of reform we’ve seen in a short amount of time has been absolutely amazing.

“I have so much respect for the adults, the teachers, the principals that are working hard. I spent a lot of time talking to students at John Mack High School there, many of whom had missed school for six months, eight months, 13 months after the hurricane and still came back to get an education. Children in our country, they want to learn. They’re resilient. They’re tough. We have to meet them halfway. We have to give them an opportunity, and New Orleans is doing a phenomenal job of getting that system to an entirely different level.”

In the Jan. 31 interview on the TV One cable-network show “Washington Watch With Roland Martin,” Mr. Duncan said 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.”

On the MSNBC program a few days later, Mr. Duncan apologized and said what he had intended to communicate: “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.”

Comparing the performance of New Orleans’ schools before the August 2005 storm and today isn’t possible because, instead of a single district, the city’s educational landscape now includes the charter and traditional schools under the 27,000-student Recovery School District, a handful of schools run by the Orleans Parish school board,and independent charter schools. In addition, there are fewer schools and fewer students.

Before the hurricane, according to Mr. Vallas’ staff, 37 percent of the schools in Orleans Parish were considered academically acceptable. Today, that proportion is 58 percent.

‘Boneheaded’

Some residents of New Orleans said last week they were offended by Mr. Duncan’s comments, while others said they could look beyond what they saw as his insensitivity. All commented before his Feb. 2 apology.

Arne Duncan on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”

From MSNBC.com

“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.

Roslyn Johnson Smith, who was a regional administrator in the New Orleans school system when Hurricane Katrina struck the city, questioned Mr. Duncan’s premise that the public schools in the city are much improved. After the storm, she founded McDonogh 42 Charter School in the Treme neighborhood and blogged about that experience for Education Week’s Web site.

“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.

Secretary Duncan mentioned in the TV One interview that he had visited John McDonogh High School, known as John Mack, 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.”

Shannon L. Jones, the executive director of the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University in New Orleans, said she didn’t like how Mr. Duncan characterized the community as needing a “wake-up call,” as if the people of New Orleans hadn’t cared about their schools.

“I think we cared before” the hurricane, 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.”

Superintendent Vallas said in his e-mail message, “We’re much too busy here to get bogged down in semantics.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Duncan’s Katrina Remarks Spark Debate in New Orleans

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