School & District Management Opinion

Disaster Equity

By Rachel B. Tompkins — November 15, 2005 7 min read
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We have been pretending since 1965 that the little bit of federal aid provided for disadvantaged children can overcome the historic legacies of racial discrimination and poverty.

In the early hours of Sept. 24, 2005, I turned on the TV to see the impact of the Gulf Coast’s second major storm of the season, Hurricane Rita. On three different stations, commentary focused on the fact that “only small towns and rural areas” would be heavily affected. Houston and Galveston, Texas, would be spared the worst, and New Orleans had escaped further destruction.

I was heartened that the major cities had limited damage, but I was reminded once again of the ways in which rural America is seen as less important. “Only” Port Arthur and Lumberton, Texas, and the area around Lake Charles, La., would be badly hurt, as if the people there count for less. In the aftermath of both Katrina and Rita, it seems clear that rural areas are likely to remain largely invisible and forgotten in the rebuilding of affected areas.

The Rural Trust works with rural schools and communities in this region, and we have talked with many people there. We know the storms were devastating to these rural places, but we’re having trouble believing that they are in the nation’s thoughts the way the larger cities are. We heard the reporters’ line “and many less-populated areas haven’t seen help yet” repeated so often that it became a cliché—all that seemed necessary to tell the world about places more country than city.

One national news outlet reported, nearly a week after Katrina hit, and after New Orleans was mostly evacuated, that rescue operations could now begin in surrounding rural areas. The newscast failed to question why rescue operations could not occur in rural and urban areas simultaneously. The rejoicing of the press over Rita’s sideswipe of Houston and Galveston was justified, but it left precious little room for reporting on the devastating situation in rural and heavily flooded Cameron Parish, or the rural areas of Calcasieu and Vermilion parishes, in Louisiana.

The problem here is not that reporters and public officials don’t see what there is to be seen in rural areas. It is that they can’t seem to elevate what they see to the same level of importance given to the disaster in urban areas.

Being left behind in a catastrophe is a shame, but being left behind when the rebuilding begins will be unforgivable. A great deal of money is going to change hands and be reinvested in the disaster areas. There will be a fresh start for many. There is, for example, excitement around the possibility of rebuilding from scratch the New Orleans school system, one of the most troubled urban districts in the nation. There will be debates about who gets to come back to New Orleans, and on what terms. We’ll hear some talk about poverty, a little about race, and more about the character and culture of the Big Easy as it is re-birthed.

What will we hear about places like Bogalusa, Moss Point, Belzoni, Yazoo City, Sardis, Meridian, Purvis, or Enterprise? Probably not much.

Unless many people—including all of us who care about such things—push, and push hard, there won’t be many national conversations (or kitchen-table conversations, for that matter) about how to rebuild in ways that put traditionally marginalized people and communities in the driver’s seat, to create more racially and culturally just institutions—including schools—in rural areas.

Consider these realities of rural schools in Mississippi and Louisiana hidden in plain sight for years:

• Mississippi has the lowest rural per-pupil expenditures on instruction in the nation. Louisiana has the eighth lowest.

• Louisiana is one of only a handful of states that provide no state funding for school facilities.

• Rural per capita income in Mississippi is the second lowest in the nation, and Louisiana’s is the fourth lowest.

• Forty-five out of 100 Mississippi rural schoolchildren, and 35 out of 100 in Louisiana, are children of color.

• Sixty-five percent of rural children in Mississippi, and 60 percent of rural children in Louisiana, qualify for federally subsidized meals in school because their families are poor. Private-property wealth is among the lowest and most skewed in the states of Mississippi and Louisiana, and property taxes on the large land holdings that dominate rural areas are especially low, leaving most rural counties with very little revenue-generating capacity.

• In many areas of Mississippi and Louisiana, persistent poverty, de facto segregation, and reinforced racial power relationships have kept local African-Americans from having a voice in their children’s education, prevented them from having control over local school boards, and maintained their areas’ history of a lack of local funding for public schools.

As we make plans to rebuild schools, we can work to overcome the inequities of history in these poor, rural places.

We estimate that, in Mississippi and Louisiana, 355 rural schools serving more than 187,000 students were in the areas affected by hurricane-force winds. That is more than three times the number of students in the New Orleans school district. About one-third of these rural students are African-American, and three-fifths are poor.

Damage was not universal in these rural areas, of course. But data from the Mississippi Department of Education, based on reports from local school officials, indicate that 28 rural Mississippi districts suffered significant damage to at least some of the 129 school buildings they operate for 67,000 students, about half of whom are African-American and 70 percent of whom are poor. Overall, these 28 districts suffered $117 million in physical losses, or about $1,745 per pupil. In some districts where the damage was massive, the losses amount to over $9,000 per pupil.

In Louisiana, our staff reported anecdotal data with similar information from hard-hit areas like Washington and St. Helena parishes and the city of Bogalusa. St. Bernard Parish was devastated by both wind and storm surge and has canceled school for the year. School leaders in these rural districts are making heroic efforts to get kids back in school and in familiar and caring routines, freeing their parents to clean up, repair, file claims, and find work. The Rural Trust is trying to help by connecting other rural places in our network with these strong but wounded places.

They need the care and attention of the nation, too. As we make plans to rebuild schools, we can work to overcome the inequities of history in these poor, rural places. We can seize this rare opportunity to preserve what’s good in them while creating ways to usher in real educational opportunity. The practical and moral challenges are immense.

So here are three suggestions:

1. We need to bind up the wounds. We have on our Web site (www.ruraledu.org) a list of rural schools and their needs—some short-term, some long-term—and ways for people everywhere to help. Our aim is not only to provide relief, but also to build a strong fabric of relationships between and among the children, families, educators, and community leaders of the nation’s rural regions. We join many others who have been working hard to deal with immediate needs.

2. We need to ask our governments at all levels to reduce the historic and intertwined inequities of race and poverty in the region. That means creating jobs for rural businesses, especially in construction, as rebuilding occurs; bringing communities together across racial and class boundaries; creating or renovating community schools that support learning for people of all ages and connect health and social services with families that will need help for a long time; and building over the remains of old structures—both physical and social—to establish new institutions and different ways of behaving.

We need to commit the national financial resources necessary for these rural places to provide children with opportunities to learn.

3. We need to commit the national financial resources necessary for these rural places to provide children with opportunities to learn. We have been pretending since 1965 that the little bit of federal aid provided for disadvantaged children can overcome the historic legacies of racial discrimination and poverty. We can’t pretend any more—the hurricanes washed that pretense away. Investments are needed in facilities, technology, professional development for teachers and administrators, continuing coaching and mentoring, strengthened connections to community colleges and higher education—all of the elements that must be in place to achieve the high expectations for learning that we have for all children.

The rural areas so hard hit by these storms are among the poorest in our nation. But they are home to people who deserve the chance to start over as much as anyone.

If the rebuilding of New Orleans produces a new generation of homeless people, an outraged world should know about it. If there is any justice in the world, the urban poor who were visibly abandoned in the Superdome will not be left out of the rebuilding of that great city.

But, just as much, the invisible rural poor, whose homes were destroyed and who had to wait for the urban evacuation to be completed before some relief could be sent their way, should not be pushed to the back of the line when the rebuilding starts.


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