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Duncan calls New Orleans mayor to explain Hurricane Katrina comment

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010; 2:25 PM

Education Secretary Arne Duncan called New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin on Friday to explain his comment to a television interviewer that Hurricane Katrina was "the best thing that happened to the education system" in the city, according to a mayoral aide.

"The secretary reached out to the mayor," James Ross, Nagin's deputy communications director, said Monday. "I believe it was Friday evening."

Duncan drew attention with the statement to "Washington Watch With Roland Martin" on the outlet TV One. His evaluation of the impact of the 2005 disaster on the struggling urban school system aired over the weekend, but excerpts circulated Friday.

The hurricane displaced thousands of students and teachers at the start of the 2005-06 school year and swamped many schools, causing widespread academic chaos. But in recent years, student achievement in the city has begun to improve.

Duncan, prompted by Martin's observation that the hurricane shook up the dynamics of education in the city, told Martin: "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."

Ross did not elaborate on what Duncan said to Nagin, but he said the mayor accepted the explanation.

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