School & District Management Opinion

A Day of Remembrance

By Douglas N. Harris — August 28, 2015 2 min read
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This is a blog about the New Orleans school reforms, especially about their effects on students’ schooling outcomes and educator practices, but today we need a different conversation.

On August 29, 2005, New Orleans experienced once of the worst tragedies in American history. It was a disaster, not natural but born of human failure. Tomorrow, ten years to the day, people around the world will hear about the tragedy and how the city has rebuilt. For the people who were here on that terrible day, no anniversary is necessary to remember it. They live Katrina every day and many still struggle to put their lives back together.

The tragedy is inseparable from the school reforms that followed. No matter where you stand on whether the reforms were a good idea, no one can question that the reforms would not have happened without Katrina. Most likely, the city would have taken the same path it was on. As in other districts, changes probably would have been incremental--gradually increasing parental school choice, expanding charters, and increasing teacher accountability. Katrina and the reforms are inseparable.

Many students and educators could not return to the city for many years to come because their homes were destroyed or severely damaged. The federal government eventually came through with financial support, but this was painfully slow and received far less than they probably deserved. As a result, Katrina changed who was in the schools. Inseparable.

Even among those teachers whose houses were undamaged, many could not return because their jobs had been eliminated. The Orleans Parish School Board, under financial, political, and other pressure from all directions, fired all the teachers. Most of those who were hired just after the school re-opened had been teaching in those schools beforehand, but only a small fraction were hired back because there were so few students at first. Without a job, it was difficult to return. Inseparable.

Many of the students and educators who returned were, and remain, traumatized. How could they not be given what they saw, what they experienced, what they lost. Inseparable.

It’s an unfortunate thing that the two are so intertwined. Education debates are heated enough as they are. With Katrina on top of it, there has been even more media attention devoted to the reforms this past week, much of it misleading.

Many have asked me to respond to the past week of articles and radio shows. “We have to set the record straight,” they say. That’s true. I will get to that, but not today.

Today is not about evidence.

Today is not about the war of words between supporters and advocates of the reforms.

Today is a time to remember the day that we wish we could forget.

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education: Lessons From New Orleans are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.