Education Secretary Duncan calls Hurricane Katrina good for New Orleans schools

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 30, 2010; A06

Education Secretary Arne Duncan called Hurricane Katrina "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans" because it forced the community to take steps to improve low-performing public schools, according to excerpts from a television interview made public Friday.

Duncan's interview on "Washington Watch With Roland Martin" was scheduled to air Sunday on TV One.

The excerpts quoted an exchange between Duncan and Martin about the effect of the 2005 hurricane on the city's schools.

Martin was quoted as saying: "What's amazing is New Orleans was devastated because of Hurricane Katrina, but because everything was wiped out, in essence, you are building from ground zero to change the dynamics of education in that city."

Duncan was quoted as replying: "It's a fascinating one. I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and this is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that 'we have to do better.' And the progress that they've made in four years since the hurricane is unbelievable. They have a chance to create a phenomenal school district. Long way to go, but that -- that city was not serious about its education. Those children were being desperately underserved prior, and the amount of progress and the amount of reform we've seen in a short amount of time has been absolutely amazing."

In a statement e-mailed to The Washington Post, Duncan elaborated on the comment: "As I heard repeatedly during my visits to New Orleans, for whatever reason, it took the devastating tragedy of the hurricane to wake up the community to demand more and expect better for their children."

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."

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