CNN Shocker: Hurricane Katrina Good For New Orleans Schools

January 30th, 2010 8:49 PM

Here's something you never would have heard from a mainstream media outlet when George W. Bush was President: Hurricane Katrina was a good thing for New Orleans.

When it comes to the school system in the Louisiana city, that's exactly what CNN reported during Saturday's "Newsroom." 

After anchor T.J. Holmes read a statement from Education Secretary Arne Duncan -- "I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina" -- he was joined by fellow CNNer's Roland Martin and Steve Perry who largely agreed.

As you watch the following video, try to imagine this discussion happening on CNN if Bush was still in the White House (video embedded below the fold with full transcript, h/t Story Balloon):

T.J. HOLMES, ANCHOR: Well, hurricane Katrina, a good thing for New Orleans? Well, that's what President Obama's education secretary says, at least saying it about the education system down there in New Orleans. That statement certainly has a lot of people talking, has us talking this morning.

The statement was made to CNN analyst Roland Martin, who happens to be in studio with us.


HOLMES: Good to have you with us.

MARTIN: Glad to be here.

HOLMES: Also CNN education contributor Steve Perry will be weighing in in Connecticut. Roland, I want to start with you. This is an interview you were doing with Arne Duncan.

MARTIN: It was for my TV-1 show, Sunday morning news show.

HOLMES: We'll see it on Sunday.

MARTIN: Right.

HOLMES: But there was some stuff that was put out and released. I do want to read this to our viewers. And he says "I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster. It took hurricane Katrina to wake up the community and say we have to do better. The progress that they've made in four years is unbelievable."

MARTIN: Right before that he said "I hate to say this."

HOLMES: "I hate to say this," by he said it.

MARTIN: He said it. And this is what he was talking about. That was a decrepit school system. And so what you do is you turn tragedy into triumph. That is, you have an opportunity to totally rebuild a school system that was not educating children, where you had a high illiteracy rate in that city, a high poverty rate.

And so it was totally destroyed, so therefore they can build from ground zero.

Not only that, "The Washington Post" story you see today, he says many folks in New Orleans are saying that, as well. Other educators are saying that, that this was the opportunity, that because it was destroyed this is how you can now fix it and repair it and build it up.

HOLMES: Let me bring in now Steve Perry. Steve, you hear the statement, I assume and it sounds like a lot of people agree with it, at least. You agree with it as well?

STEVE PERRY, CNN EDUCATION CONTRIBUTOR: Of course I agree with it, but problem here is what we didn't obliterate was the leadership. We keep retreading leaders in the public school system. Paul Ballas was the CEO of Chicago public schools, not necessarily a powerful school system, a failure in its own right, coming from there, Arne Duncan.

It's like a bad version of the Atlanta housewives. We keep retreading the leaders and taking them from one place to another and expecting different results. We can't just change what's happening in the schools. We have to change leadership and bring new talent to bear.

MARTIN: But actually, Steve, in New Orleans, when you look at test scores, when you look at involvement of the schools, you have seen a change because the power structure, how the school system was being run totally changed in terms of -- Ballas has a heck of a lot more control over that school system than what you had before then.

You get the fights between the mayor and the school board and you had folks in the schools, they totally changed how they run the schools. So at the end of the day, our kids, scores are going up, kids are learning more. The data is there, and it is getting better.

HOLMES: Steve, go ahead.

PERRY: But the other side of it is we often talk about the scores going up, so they go up from five percent to 10 percent, we call that 100 percent growth, but it's still 90 percent failure.

What I'm talking about is at some point we need to change fundamentally who's running the schools, not just move people from one part of the country to the other and making incremental change, because we're still categorically failing our children.

MARTIN: I agree, but Steve, if you go from five to 10, your goal then 10 to 15, 20 to 30, you're not going...

PERRY: The problem is... MARTIN: Steve, I understand that, but what I'm saying is the whole key that Secretary Duncan is talking about is that you had an opportunity to totally restructure.

If you actually -- if the school system in this country were a lot like a sorry building with so many code violations, city council would have razed these schools. And so what he was saying is we have an opportunity to reconstruct how folks are being educated as the result of the devastation.

PERRY: I agree with that.

MARTIN: In Haiti, you're seeing the same thing.

PERRY: That's not what I'm disagreeing with. Of course that's happening. I'm saying that we can't have a Katrina in all of the 50 states. We have to have more than that.

And what I'm saying is the problem here is that what we keep doing is we keep retreading superintendents. They go from one community to the other. They're like journeymen field goal kickers on bad teams in the NFL. I'm saying at some point we have to put new people in there.

HOLMES: Has there...

MARTIN: There are new people down there, as well.

HOLMES: Steve, has there been -- what changes have you seen in New Orleans? You talk about that same kind of administrative structure there, but still, has there been something that caused everybody to look at that education system a little differently, or are you saying there's really nothing that has changed down there?

PERRY: I'm not saying at that all. I'm saying there are changes. I'm saying we can continue to make greater changes.

One of the changes, they've been having an honest discussion about vouchers. They're giving real choice to the student throughout the community. That's phenomenal.

What I'm saying is that we need to make sure we have access to new leaders. One of the reasons why D.C. is doing what it's doing is because they have a leader who comes from outside the system. She wasn't a transplant from somewhere else and doing it in community after community after community.

What Michelle Reed is doing is she is looking at the whole problem with a different set of eyes, a new set of eyes.

MARTIN: And the problem she has is she's dealing with the city council, she's fighting with the mayor that supports her.

I agree we need new leadership, but here's the reality -- has that system been fundamentally changed to a certain degree? Yes. Are they seeing progress? Yes. Are things progressing, yes? Are they having parent who is finally recognize you can't just complaint but you need to get involved? Yes.

And so I applaud the progress there. Do we need more leaders? Yes. There are people moving to New Orleans I know personally to get involved in the school system, the charter schools, absolutely.

So I will always applaud progress while at the same time calling for new leadership. I will not dismiss the progress of that happening there.

What you're seeing at the education department is they are trying to focus across this country on challenging people to raise their expectations, challenging teachers' unions to stop making excuses for sorry teaches, but also challenging the parents to say you cannot demand excellence from a school system if you don't have a demand for excellence at your own home.

HOLMES: And, Steve, I'll let you wrap it there. Go ahead, Steve.

PERRY: And what I'm saying is of course I'm applauding progress. On the same token, I'm talking about there are children right now in the schools who can't be part of a school system with 70 percent failure rates in some of the schools. I'm saying those children need access out to schools now. And that is happening.

MARTIN: I agree with you.

HOLMES: Let him finish.

PERRY: And so we applaud the progress. The problem is that these children don't get a chance to wait for progress to take shape. We need more now.

MARTIN: Look, I understand. I support vouchers, public school, private school, home school, online, as long as they get educated at the end of the day. That's all I care about.

PERRY: Then we're in agreement.

HOLMES: Gentlemen, I appreciate you both being here.

MARTIN: Tune in to my show, TV-1, 11:00 a.m. tomorrow. That's the purpose of the interview.



HOLMES: Fellas, we appreciate it. Good discussion, both of you.

PERRY: Take it easy, gentlemen.

HOLMES: See you, Steve.

For the record, the Washington Post has already positively reported on Duncan's statement and included support for his comment:

Paul G. Vallas, superintendent of the Recovery School District in Louisiana, which oversees most of the city's public schools, said he had "no problem" with Duncan's comments about the hurricane's beneficial effect on education.

"Local people have said that time and time again," Vallas said. "He's not saying hurricanes are good things. . . . What he's saying is that people were not serious about school reform [before the hurricane struck], and if they were serious, there wasn't any progress being made. And post-Katrina, there is."

Duncan worked for Vallas when Vallas headed the Chicago public schools about a decade ago.

Vallas said that about 37,000 students attend New Orleans public schools and that average test scores have risen two years in a row.

Many schools, he said, have been rebuilt or overhauled since the hurricane, and their academic performance is improving.

Paul Pastorek, Louisiana superintendent of education, said of Duncan's comments: "I know it's a strong statement, but it's actually quite accurate. It was a pathetic system before the storm."

So, test scores have risen two years in a row. That means one of them was when Bush was still in the White House.

Can you imagine how the press would have responded if Bush education secretary Margaret Spellings had made the same statement Duncan did after the 2008 school year and before the November elections?

Would the press have been so quick to agree with her sentiments?

Likely not. But now that Barack Obama is in the White House, even natural disasters have their upside.


*****Update: Actually, test scores have improved in New Orleans for THREE straight years! reported last May (h/t NBer Gary Hall):

New Orleans test scores jumped this year across most grade levels and school types, with both charter and traditional schools celebrating gains.

The boost in scores, the third consecutive year of improvement, helped narrow a still-sizable gap in student achievement between the city and the rest of Louisiana.

"In some cases, the gap is closing dramatically, " said Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas.

Vallas' district includes 33 traditional and 33 charter schools. Overall, both types of schools saw some growth, although the charters still outperformed the noncharters, echoing last year's scores.

For the record, fully 2 1/2 of these years were while Bush was still in the White House.