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The Future of Public Education in New Orleans

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Document date: January 30, 2006
Released online: January 30, 2006

From the series "After Katrina: Rebuilding Opportunity and Equity in the New New Orleans"

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

The text below is a portion of the complete document.

Long before the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina or the chaos of evacuation, New Orleans' social infrastructure was failing. News coverage of the overcrowded Superdome and the city's flooded streets exposed the poverty and vulnerability of many residents, especially African Americans. As New Orleans begins to rebuild, can the city avoid the mistakes of the past, instead creating more effective social support for low-income and minority residents? Innovation and experience from other U.S. cities offer promising strategies for reducing the risks of poverty and opening up opportunities for economic security and success. This essay is from an Urban Institute collection that addresses employment, affordable housing, public schools, young children's needs, health care, arts and culture, and vulnerable populations. All these essays assess the challenges facing New Orleans today and for years to come and recommend tested models for making the city's social infrastructure stronger and more equitable than it was before Katrina.

"We see an opportunity to do something incredible." These were the words of Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco as she signed legislation in late November allowing the state of Louisiana to take over most of New Orleans' schools. And she just may be right. Education could be one of the bright spots in New Orleans' recovery effort, which may even establish a new model for school districts nationally. This is not to say that the current education situation in New Orleans is not dire; nor should it suggest that the district has a history as a lighthouse of excellence.

Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of New Orleans' public education system. In the central city's Orleans Parish schools, fewer than 20 of approximately 120 school buildings remained usable. The storm also largely destroyed the state and local tax bases from which the school district draws its revenues. All students, teachers, and administrators were forced to evacuate, and the school district has yet to resume the teacher salary payments it was forced to suspend. To date, only a few dozen teachers have returned to the city. The superintendent and top administrators have returned, as have school board members. Thus, New Orleans is like a rotten borough in England: nobody lives there, but there are still some pickings for the political class to work over.

The New Orleans parochial school system, which educated 40 percent of New Orleans' students, was also devastated. Although Catholic schools have reopened in some of the highest and driest neighborhoods and some damaged schools elsewhere are reopening, it is not clear whether or when all the flooded schools will open. But because the archdiocese includes all the parishes in New Orleans, not just Orleans Parish, many of the students in the hardest-hit schools were reassigned to other schools outside the central city. The New Orleans archdiocese also set up satellite schools in other cities to serve its displaced students. Overall, 79 percent of Catholic school students have returned to class. Catholic schools, including schools in Baton Rouge, have been instructed to take in as many displaced public school students as possible, with or without support.

If large numbers of school-age children were to return to New Orleans this year, the state and city probably could not afford to provide schools for them. However, few are likely to return quickly. Most city children now attend schools elsewhere, and no one knows whether parents will want to uproot them yet again. Certainly, families will be reluctant to expose children to molds, toxic dust, bad sanitation, and the other health hazards menacing most flooded neighborhoods. The relatively few parents who return to the city to take jobs and to restore houses are likely to leave their children in safer places. The city's poorest former residents, many of whom have found housing and income support elsewhere, probably will not return until their current arrangements expire. Even then, given the uncertain status of public services and welfare payments, the poor can be expected to weigh the risks and rewards of returning to New Orleans very carefully.

Teachers are unlikely to return in large numbers until jobs are available, and many who have found posts elsewhere will never come back. Most of New Orleans' legal and financial communities have relocated to Baton Rouge, and though most of these sectors' workers will be eager to return to New Orleans, they and the many jobs they generate are not likely to return in large numbers until the electronic, transportation, public health, and public safety infrastructures are in full operation. The numbers of utility workers and people working at hotels and the seaport will grow, but news reports confirm the logical expectation that many wage earners will leave their families behind at least temporarily. Moreover, some adults might choose to work in New Orleans during the rebuilding boom without intending to stay.

At some point, the availability of public schools will determine whether families locate in New Orleans. But in the first three years or so after the hurricane, K-12 education in New Orleans will be a trailing phenomenon, dependent on how fast the economy and housing are rebuilt. The public school population might also be much smaller and differently composed in the future if, for example, a building boom attracts large numbers of Latino workers and families. In short, the location, size, and instructional orientation of schools will depend on developments in the economy and housing. The time is ripe to consider transforming the school district in ways appropriate for the demands it faces. Unfortunately, the district's history provides few guideposts.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

Topics/Tags: | Cities and Neighborhoods | Education

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