May 01, 2010

It Takes a Hurricane

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.