Katrina's Children

Kids displaced by the hurricane shouldn't be dumped into failing schools.

Article created by The Century Foundation.

While natural disasters are thought of as the quintessential levelers, hitting rich and poor, and black and white alike, we all now know that government action, and inaction, have an enormous impact on just who absorbs the brunt of the disaster. In New Orleans, the government failed the first test of protection, by inadequately fortifying the city from flooding. It then failed the second test of evacuating the city, by inadequately providing for the city's poor and mostly black residents, who lacked cars to flee and money for hotels. Now, government faces a third test: how it will handle the schooling of the children who evacuated to other parts of Louisiana, to neighboring states, and to other parts of the country.

Given all that the children of New Orleans have been through, we ought to do everything we can to ensure that they receive a high quality education, with great teachers, active parents, and supportive peers. For the first time in their lives, thousands of students who had attended struggling high poverty public schools in New Orleans could be given the opportunity to attend solidly middle class, high achieving schools. Alternatively, they may be assigned to the same sort of failing schools they left. Will we take advantage of a unique opportunity to do well by these children?

On one level, there is encouraging evidence of hospitality, as public and private schools scrambled to make room for new children. But there are some worrisome signs as well. The Wall Street Journal reports today that private schools are opening their doors mostly to sister private schools. In the Houston area, most of the children of New Orleans will end up in high-poverty urban schools, rather than in the suburbs, where better-off students are educated.

There is a legitimate concern about the capacity of schools to take in large numbers of new students. But that is what public schools, unlike private schools, are required to do: take all comers. Under the surface, the real concerns of parents often center around the economic class of peers. According to a study conducted by David Rusk for The Century Foundation, economic segregation of schools is increasing, with devastating consequences. Although American public schools are meant to provide equal opportunity to students, middle class schools are 24 times as likely as low income schools to perform at high academic levels.

The children and families of New Orleans know this all to well. Even before the hurricane, children in the Orleans Parish school district were in a very tough situation. New Orleans has often ranked as the nation's murder capital, and the schools suffer all the negative effects of poverty. Statewide, 5.7 percent of Louisiana schools were failing to make adequate yearly progress in 2003-2004; in the Orleans Parish, the figure was 47 percent, eight times the rate of failure.

Across the country, a growing number of districts have been seeking to address the problem of economic segregation. From Wake County (Raleigh), North Carolina, to LaCrosse Wisconsin, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, districts have sought to reduce the concentrations of poverty, with very favorable results for students. Low income children do much better in middle class schools; in fact, low income students in middle class schools do better academically than middle class students in low income schools.

If any set of children has purchase on the nation's conscience, it is the children of New Orleans who have experienced things no children should have to go through. They should not now be relocated to high poverty schools that are plagued by failure. They are citizens not only of New Orleans, but of the United States, and deserve to be welcomed into America's middle class schools. This is a test the government must pass.