Stakeholder Organizations: Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans Public Schools

Article excerpt

The public schools of New Orleans have long been believed to be among the worst of any big city school systems in the United States. The students are the poorest citizens of one of the poorest cities in one of the poorest states in the country. Although the population of the city is approximately 65% African American, the student population in the district is more than 90% African-American-a result of continuously failing schools and decades of white flight. In a city with one of the highest rates of private school attendance in the country, 25% compared to 10% nationally (Newmark & De Rugy, 2006), the public schools have been consistently under-funded and neglected. Prior to the storm, the district was led by 10 superintendents in 10 years, and several have left under clouds of suspicion regarding mishandled money. Until the eyes of the nation fell on this city after Hurricane Katrina struck on 29 August 2005, there had been little political will to improve the failing system.

The nation cringed at the TV news clips of poor African Americans huddled, dehydrated, and dying at the convention center and Superdome waiting for handouts from the government. The embarrassment to the city was real, and this may provide the political will to change the city's public schools permanently. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the district temporarily lost 100% of its students and did not reopen a single school for more than two months. As it became apparent that the district was not prepared to bring the schools back from such a devastating blow, educators began to see a silver lining in Katrina's dark clouds. State School Board member Leslie Jacobs said, "The Diaspora of New Orleans represents the opportunity to rebuild our public school system" (Ins-keep, 2005b). While some saw this as an opportunity to rebuild the system, huge segments of the population were living in Houston, Baton Rouge, Atlanta, and hundreds of other places across the country. With the low-income, non-white residents most often affected by the disaster, it fell to the educational organizations in the city to lead the debate over how the schools should be reopened. Could these organizations follow through on their promise to improve schooling for the lower-income residents of New Orleans? With leadership structures and educational platforms already in place, these stakeholder organizations (teachers union, school board, and the like) were well-situated to influence the course of events in the tumultuous few months following the storm. Would they seize the opportunity? This article addresses the question: How did stakeholder organizations respond to the post-Katrina collapse of the New Orleans Public Schools? Components of this question are:

* Why did groups act when they did?

* What basis did they use to argue for their proposed reforms?

* What successes/failures have groups had in bringing their educational vision to fruition?

In understanding the ways in which various stakeholder organizations responded to Katrina, it should be possible to understand the reasons for the success and failure of certain groups. This may give some insight into the complex social and political forces that surround any effort to change urban schools. Although Seymour Sarason has noted "The intractability of schools to educational reform" (Sarason 1990, p.147), it is possible that schools are not intractable as much as reformers are ignorant of the complexities of changing organizations as complex as urban schools. Understanding the role of stakeholder organizations in post-Katrina reforms is one small step toward the larger agenda of understanding how urban schools change.

Theoretical Framework

Fullan, (2000) addresses the concepts of cultural and structural change as they apply to school reform. Structural change involves change in governance structures (Cuban & Usdan, 2002) and formal leadership roles in an effort to improve the educational outcomes of a district. …