Lessons from Hurricane Katrina can help students in Texas and Florida

Lessons from Hurricane Katrina can help students in Texas and Florida
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As a resident of New Orleans, I have profound concern for those who have been impacted by hurricanes Harvey and Irma because I recall our city’s devastation following Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago. 

At that time I was a State senator representing eastern New Orleans. The concerns of my constituents were similar to those of many urban areas around the country — quality of life issues including crime and economic development were paramount. 

The transformation of the New Orleans public education system is commonly viewed as a product of Hurricane Katrina, but that is not the complete story. Prior to 2005, my constituency was outraged by the turmoil, disorganization and dysfunction of the public school system.

The failure of New Orleans public schools has been well-documented: unsafe and underperforming schools, a school board focused on awarding lucrative contracts instead of teaching kids and private schools as the best option for parents to provide quality education for their children.

While in the Senate, I helped lead the fight to successfully expand educational options for Louisiana’s children by authoring and supporting numerous pieces of school choice legislation, including a bill that allowed the state to take over the majority of New Orleans’ failing public schools. This legislation was important as it paved the way for the opening of public charter schools and gave every parent a choice of schools for their children. For the first time a parent could walk away from a failing and substandard public school.

Clearly, the challenges presented by hurricanes Harvey and Irma are much different than those posed by Katrina. However, New Orleans’ pre-Katrina education reforms and the actions taken immediately following the disaster can prove to be instructive as school systems in southeast Texas and Florida begin their recoveries.

Locally, with thousands of students impacted by prolonged school closures, officials must reopen schools as quickly as possible. This was our challenge after the floodwater receded in New Orleans. If it were not for the reform measures we enacted prior to Hurricane Katrina, the transformation story would have been much different.

Thanks to the pre-Katrina education reforms and school choice options, public education returned to New Orleans in January — a full six months ahead of the school board’s planned reopening. The state’s department of education was able to step in to directly operate schools, hire teachers and principals, establish a curriculum and reopen schools. The city’s recovery would move forward.

The success of New Orleans’ education transformation is unmistakable. The percentage of public-school students enrolled in failing schools dropped from 62 percent prior to Hurricane Katrina, to just 6 percent in the fall of 2014. More than 90 percent of schools operate as public charter schools.

Today, the majority of New Orleans schools participate in an equitable common enrollment system. A statewide voucher program is in place that empowers families with the financial resources to send their children to the private school of their choice.

However, the recovery for Harvey and Irma shouldn’t stop at the local level.

Federally, important changes occurred after Katrina. In its aftermath, more than 372,000 students across the Gulf Coast were no longer able to attend their schools in the 2005-06 school year. Congress then took the mantle and designed a relief package that gave families the opportunity to enroll their child in the school of their choice. Federal dollars went to public school districts, which then made payments to schools of all types that enrolled Hurricane Katrina victims. 

Public and private schools in more than 40 states welcomed displaced Katrina students. The temporary aid for displaced students lasted throughout the 2005-06 school year, and provided $6,000 per student and $7,500 per special education student. Just as the 370,000 students displaced by Hurricane Katrina received the full support of the federal government, the children displaced by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma deserve full support, as well.

While authorities are still assessing the damage from Harvey and Irma, if there are displaced students, federal policymakers should look to the Katrina relief package for guidance. Displaced families need immediate options and doors of opportunity should be open for displaced students to immediately enroll in any school — public, public charter, private, parochial — with the capacity to teach these already fragile students.

Ann Duplessis is a board member for the American Federation for Children. She is a former Democratic Louisiana legislator where she served on the Senate Education Committee and fought successfully to expand educational options for Louisiana’s children by authoring and supporting numerous pieces of school choice legislation.