10 years later, Katrina’s effect on education

Published 10:22 am Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Among the many remembrances and reflections on the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, one of particular interest is the discussion of its effects on schools in New Orleans. There is no doubt that pre-Katrina public schools in New Orleans were struggling, but the narrative is that post-Katrina, with the almost complete takeover by charter schools, New Orleans education is better.

Some even hint that Katrina was a god-send, to wipe the slate clean and start over.

Two major pieces were published this week, one from the New York Times (“The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover”) and another from The Institute for Public Affairs (“10 Years After Katrina, New Orleans’ All-Charter School System Has Proven a Failure”) provided blistering rebuttals to this narrative. In both articles, the evidence is laid out that the “accomplishments” of charter schools in one of the poorest, most struggling school systems is a mirage.

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And the Network for Public Education has a study comparing charters in Louisiana, mostly in New Orleans, to Louisiana traditional public schools, controlling for race, ethnicity, poverty and whether students qualified for special education. On eighth-grade reading and math tests, charter-school students performed worse than their public-school counterparts by enormous margins—2 to 3 standard deviations.

Despite this evidence, there are disturbing calls for a similar takeover of public education in Mississippi, citing “more money is spent than ever before, but schools are no better.” And a few critics of public schools have called for doing away with these “government indoctrination centers” altogether. And it’s not just pundits on talk radio: this scorn goes all the way up to Governor Phil Bryant, who called public education in Mississippi an “abysmal failure.”

Of course, they aren’t talking about “our” schools; they are talking about “those” schools.

Public education in Mississippi has challenges, to be sure, but I disagree with those that call it a failure, much less those who would see public education in this state privatized.

It has been estimated that if we closed every school in the Delta and Southwest Mississippi, the state would go from 48th to around 24th in the nation in education. Did education magically improve? No, but the numbers would look better. In effect, that’s what happened in New Orleans. Keep the desirable students (and their scores), and force out the rest.

The problem, as it has always been with public education, is that we are asking schools to overcome the effects of the communities they exist in. It takes more resources to offer students in struggling communities the same opportunities as those in affluent ones.

Simply put, we have to spend more money in struggling schools — not to simply throw good money after bad, but to try and overcome outside factors. Research has shown time and again that two-thirds of student achievement impact happens away from school. With students in stable, affluent homes in strong communities, this two-thirds is a plus. For those students in unstable, poor homes in struggling communities, this two-thirds is a minus.

Public education is not perfect. And it never will be, because people are not perfect. Public schools reflect their communities. When people attack schools, what they are actually attacking is the communities served by those schools. Saying that we should stop supporting “failing” schools is tantamount to saying we should stop supporting “failing” communities. But in both cases, we never made a serious attempt to improve them in the first place.

In Mississippi, we have opposed public schools for decades. To wit:

We resisted providing free textbooks in the 1940s;

We consolidated schools to maintain segregation in the 1950s;

We tried to abolish public schools altogether in response to integration in the 1960s;

We tried to shift public funds to segregation academies in the 1970s;

We resisted attempts to provide kindergarten and basic standards in the 1980s;

We resisted adequately funding education in the 1990s;

We resisted adjusting school funding to fix inequities in the 2000s;

And now we are determined to privatize education in the 2010s.

To those who say public education is a failure:

Just when are we ever going to give it a chance to succeed?

Are we ever going to try provide an adequate education to all our state’s children, instead of finding excuses not to? Or have we decided as a people to accept the inequity as permanent, creating a dual system of education for the haves and the have-nots?


Shannon Eubanks is principal of Enterprise Attendance Center.