It Takes a Hurricane: Might Hurricane Katrina Provide for New Orleans Students What Brown Once Promised?
Abstract: Presented as part of a program for the AALS Education Law section
entitled “Five Years After Katrina: Access to Education,” this article
places post-Katrina education in New Orleans directly in the line of
education reform triggered by the decision in Brown v. Board of
Education in 1954. The article agues that post-Katrina New Orleans
represents the pursuit of the same goal pursued by the Brown plaintiffs:
improved access to educational opportunities for students, most of whom
are African American, not being equitably served by the status quo. The
article then frames these two moments – the Brown decision and
Hurricane Katrina – as inertia-jarring events in the history of New
Orleans public education and compares the responses to these two
hurricanes (one figurative, one literal).
Connecting the post-Brown and post-Katrina eras, the article focuses
on themes common to both – state intervention in New Orleans schools
and an increase in choice for students – and details the ways in which
the response to one has shaped the response to the other. Looking at
ways the city has learned from the Brown era and the ways in which the
city seems on a path to repeating some of that era’s mistakes, the
article argues that success or failure in post-Katrina public education
will be impacted by the city’s post-Brown experience. Specifically,
although the motivation behind state intervention is clearly different
than it was during the Brown era, there remains skepticism about the
role of the state in providing for New Orleans public schools.
Further, despite having made choice far more widely available after
Katrina than it had been before, the potential for a return to a
stratified system of schools – and the class - and race-based resentment
such stratification engenders – could threaten the public support New
Orleans public schools currently enjoy.
The progress of public education in New Orleans is important beyond
the boundaries of Orleans Parish. Post-Katrina New Orleans serves as the
pivotal proving ground for the use of increased choice and charter
schools to provide more equitable access to quality education. With 61%
of New Orleans public school students enrolled in 51 charter schools
(both numbers by far the highest in the nation), post-Katrina New
Orleans represents an opportunity for the choice movement to demonstrate
success on a large scale. Success in New Orleans will lead to broader
choice in struggling urban districts across the country. Conversely,
failure to deliver improved access to quality education will reverse the
current upward trajectory of the choice movement.
Given the stakes, the New Orleans public schools are likely to be
among the most scrupulously evaluated in the coming years. However, as
scholars and advocates begin evaluating this reform effort and
continuing to shape the future of public education in New Orleans, it is
imperative to recognize the ways in which the story that precedes the
hurricane shapes and impacts the story unfolding in its wake. This
article serves will help ensure that happens.
If reformers in New Orleans are able to focus on the goal of
increasing access to quality educational opportunities, then the chance
created out of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina will not be wasted. It
would be beautifully ironic if, thanks in part to a hurricane, the
schools in the city whose segregated railcars gave us Plessy v. Ferguson
could finally deliver on that elusive promise of Brown to provide more
equitable access to quality educational opportunities.
This article appeared in the Journal of Law and Education. The full article is available here.