Where Duncan went wrong
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan never should have said, as he did on a TV interview to be aired Sunday and Monday, that Hurricane Katrina was "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans."
He was hurtful and insensitive. There were nearly 2,000 confirmed deaths from the storm and the floods.
Instead, he should have focused on why New Orleans schools attracted better resources, fresher ideas and a great influx of energetic teachers that they would not have gotten nearly as quickly if the disaster had not occurred.
We have many terrible problems in this country that we ignore until the situation becomes absolutely desperate. I put the growing deficit and the looming bankruptcy of Social Security and Medicare in that category. Some of our schools belong in that category too, but schools are a local issue so the desperation has to be localized before anybody does something.
One of the best urban schools ever, the Central Park East Secondary School, was born only because the education situation in Harlem was so bad. Here in D.C., we only got much action to fix our schools when we slid to the worst system in the country. New Orleans was not quite as bad as we were, but still pretty bad, and with a bureaucracy that was famous for getting in the way of progress.
Duncan is a smart and caring guy who will undoubtedly apologize for the pain that his words inflict on people who lived through that tragedy, or who care about one of our greatest cities being so damaged, and all the lives lost in the tragedy.
I haven't seen the interview. I hope Duncan explained that the people of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana were working to fix those schools before Katrina. Many people think the Recovery School District in the city was created after the hurricane, but no. It is the result of a school improvement law passed by the state in 2003.
They had good intentions, but moved slowly. The aftermath of Katrina sped that up considerably, and made possible one of fastest turnarounds ever of an ailing district.
I have visited several of the New Orleans charter schools that replaced schools damaged by the floods. They have had a great start. But I think Duncan, as well as I and every other thinking human being, would have been happy to forget that progress if, by some divine bargain, the city could have been spared Katrina.
Duncan's poorly chosen words do not help the New Orleans schools, or the cause of education improvement in America. I hope we can get back to talking about that as soon as possible.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| January 29, 2010; 4:28 PM ET
Categories: Jay on the Web | Tags: Arne Duncan, Duncan and Katrina, Duncan was right, Hurricane Katrina changed New Orleans schools, Katrina comment, Recovery School district
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