Landrieu Spices Up Debate on Federal Hurricane Aid

By Michelle R. Davis — November 29, 2005 8 min read
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Sen. Mary L. Landrieu is all business as she sits in her office in the Hart Senate office building here discussing the effects of Hurricane Katrina on her hometown of New Orleans.

There’s no hint of the woman who, in the days after floodwaters raced through the city, said she’d like to punch President Bush for a fumbled federal response, or who held the Senate floor until 2 a.m. on a day in October exhorting lawmakers to send federal aid to hurricane victims.

That is, until she discusses the possibility that conservative House Republicans will try to block a Senate-passed hurricane education aid plan from becoming law. Then the Louisiana Democrat lets loose.

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., joins Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., at a subcommittee meeting in September to discuss proposals on federal aid to help schools cope with the aftermath of the recent hurricanes.

“If they have to use poor schoolchildren to promote their political agenda, then I pity them,” she said of the conservatives. “I’m not angry with them. I pity them.”

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which battered the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29 and led to breaches in the levees that protected New Orleans from the waters of Lake Pontchartrain, Ms. Landrieu, along with others in the Louisiana congressional delegation, has worked to funnel federal aid to the area for everything from job creation to K-12 education.

While her efforts to help schools have won high praise in some circles, other stances she’s taken—particularly her support of a new charter school version of the devastated New Orleans public school system—are driving a wedge between the second-term senator and some of her core political supporters.

But she said in the Nov. 17 interview that she’s willing to trade some disapproval for a historic opportunity to improve schools in the state.

“I have just passed the point where I’m willing to defend these systems,” Ms. Landrieu said. “My job is to defend the children, to fight for them to get a quality education, and so I’m willing to take political criticism if it comes my way.”

Stepping Out of the Box

Sen. Landrieu’s family has suffered its own share of Hurricane Katrina fallout. She, her husband, lawyer Frank Snellings, and their two children evacuated New Orleans just before the storm, setting up shop in Baton Rouge, the state capital. Several of the senator’s eight siblings who live in New Orleans lost their homes, and her father, Maurice E. “Moon” Landrieu, a former mayor of the city, and her mother, Verna, evacuated under a hurricane threat for the first time ever.

State schools Superintendent Cecil J. Picard said that in the wake of the hurricane, Sen. Landrieu was a constant presence in his office, in person and through her aides, who called daily for updates on education in the disaster-stricken areas.

But even before Katrina swept through Louisiana, Sen. Landrieu had taken an activist role on education issues, Mr. Picard said. From making sure state education programs got plenty of federal grants to taking a lead in new education ventures in the state, Ms. Landrieu has come through, he said.

“Mary has been willing to step out of the box and do what’s best for education, and that’s why I respect her,” Mr. Picard said.

The Landrieus: A Political Family Tree

U.S. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., comes from a politically active New Orleans family.

Maurice Edward “Moon” Landrieu

• Mayor of New Orleans, 1970-78

• U.S. secretary of housing and urban development under President Jimmy Carter, 1979-1981

• Judge, Louisiana Court of Appeal, 1991-2000

• Age 75; married to Verna Landrieu, for 41 years.

The Landrieus have nine children, all with names beginning with M. Four are in public service:

Mary L. Landrieu

• Louisiana House of Representatives, 1980-88

• Louisiana state treasurer, 1988-96

• U.S. Senate, 1997-present

• Age: 50

Mitch Landrieu

• Louisiana House of Representatives, 1988-2004

• Louisiana lieutenant governor, 2004-present

• Age: 45

Madeleine Landrieu

• Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge, 2001-present

• Age: 43

Maurice Landrieu

• Assistant U.S. attorney in New Orleans

• Age: 39

Aunt: Phyllis Landrieu

• Married to Moon Landrieu’s brother Joseph

• Currently a New Orleans school board member

SOURCE: Education Week

She’s hoping to step out of the box once again for what she believes could be a leap forward for the New Orleans school system, which was scheduled this week to reopen its first school since the storm hit. The district was faltering even before floodwaters washed through school cafeterias and libraries.

Now state and federal lawmakers and some education officials see the disaster as an opportunity to create something new. Under a plan the Louisiana legislature was expected to approve in a special session slated to end last week, the state would take over most of New Orleans’ public schools and would likely turn some of them over to outside groups to be run as charter schools. (“La. Lawmakers OK Plan to Give State Control of Most New Orleans Schools,” this issue.)

Sen. Landrieu, who was re-elected in a tough 2002 campaign with the support of the state teachers’ unions, backs the idea. One of her five keys to rebuilding New Orleans, she said, is to rebuild the education system in a more entrepreneurial spirit.

But Steve Monaghan, the president of the 21,000-member Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said he’s upset that teachers’ wishes are being ignored, and that he hasn’t heard from Sen. Landrieu on the matter.

“When people need political support, they ask you to stand with them and work with them and embrace a vision,” he said. “Then when they’re making moves like this, there is no conversation. That to me is heartbreaking.”

But Ms. Landrieu’s backing for charter schools shouldn’t be a surprise. Months before Hurricane Katrina was even a swirl on a weather map, the senator helped found the Education Venture Fund, a statewide public-private partnership in Louisiana which before the hurricane had hoped to raise $4 million this school year and $10 million the following year in federal dollars and private donations to support converting failing regular schools into charter schools, which are public but largely independent.

The Education Venture Fund, run by James Meza, the dean of the college of education at the University of New Orleans, recruits organizations to take over failing schools, provides them with seed money, and oversees their efforts. When the program was launched earlier this year, New Orleans’ P.A. Capdau Junior High School, run by the University of New Orleans, was the only school in the pilot project. Though Capdau is still closed following Hurricane Katrina, officials are saying it may open in January.

Groups such as the New Orleans Urban League were supportive, and the teachers’ unions weren’t highly vocal in opposing the small program. But with the prospect of an expansion of charter schooling in the post-Katrina district, Sen. Landrieu may now find herself in the middle of a fierce debate.

“The senator will continue to provide leadership on this,” Mr. Meza said. “She’s so passionate about these children that I believe she thinks it’s worth taking any political risk.”

Others in the education community were disappointed that Sen. Landrieu’s proposal for federal hurricane aid, which called for a whopping $250 billion for Louisiana’s restoration, also included $4,000 for public and private schools for each displaced student they took in. Though that proposal didn’t make it through the Senate, Sen. Landrieu helped push through a $1.66 billion education aid package sponsored by Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the ranking member, that would provide $6,000 to private schools for each displaced student they enrolled.

Though Sen. Landrieu said she is opposed to private school vouchers, in this case she supports federal education dollars going to private schools, including religious schools. The senator herself has strong ties to the Roman Catholic school system as a graduate of Ursuline Academy, a Catholic girls’ school in New Orleans.

“This is not the beginning of a nationwide voucher program,” she said in the interview, referring to the Enzi-Kennedy measure. “In an emergency, sometimes you need to change rules and try new things”

Like Ms. Landrieu, the Louisiana School Boards Association typically opposes vouchers. But its executive director, W.F. “Freddie” Whitford, praised the senator’s work in education and said he, too, sees the need for a new approach. “Ordinarily, we’d be out there in the forefront fighting any money going to private schools, but I think we’re going to take a softer approach,” he said this month.

But Carol Davis, the president of the 20,000-member Louisiana Association of Educators, which is an affiliate of the National Education Association, said she doesn’t believe politicians who say these voucher proposals are limited measures.

“It’s like the levees breaking. It started as a trickle and then the water flowed in and destroyed big parts of the city,” Ms. Davis said. “I see the word voucher on that water all the time.”

The Old-Boys Club

Sen. Landrieu, 50, seems confident she can weather any post-Katrina political storm. It’s an attitude she’s honed over nearly 30 years of political service—and an even longer time soaking up the distinctive tang of Bayou politics at the feet of her father.

Moon Landrieu, now 75, was the mayor of New Orleans from 1970 to 1978. He used to take Mary, his eldest daughter, with him as he tromped the city streets asking for votes. Mr. Landrieu’s eyes watch over his daughter in Washington from a portrait on her office wall.

Mary Landrieu has gone from being the youngest woman in the state legislature to a U.S. senator, and along the way weathered nail-biting elections that sharpened her political skills, said Mr. Picard, the state superintendent. Mr. Picard was a member of the state Senate when Ms. Landrieu arrived in the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1980 to confront an old-boys club that wasn’t always kind.

“She was young and without experience, and the big boys made the little girls cry,” Mr. Picard said. “She has really evolved and toughened up. She can play with the big boys now.”

In Washington, she has. She was at the table in helping to craft the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, getting her own amendment into the law to ensure that Title I compensatory education money goes to the neediest districts first. She has a coveted seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and is a member of the subcommittee that deals with education. She has been adept at securing millions of federal dollars for education projects in Louisiana, Mr. Picard said.

“I have seen her evolve,” he said, “but she’s always been a friend to education.”


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