Louisiana Supt. John White Slams NEA Chief Over Criticism of New Orleans Recovery After Katrina

Louisiana Department of Education

Louisiana State Superintendent of Education John White slammed National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García on Tuesday for saying in an interview that the state bulldozed school buildings in black neighborhoods while rebuilding schools in white areas after Hurricane Katrina.

“In a city where every single child will attend a renovated or new school building, and in a system where 83 percent of those children are black, it is ludicrous to a point of absurdity to state on the record that black schools were simply bulldozed and white schools were rebuilt,” White told The 74.

“It’s either willful ignorance because of some disposition against New Orleans, or it’s just a level of lack of preparation and lack of information that should cause us to question the preparation of that person’s important job,” he said.

The controversy started Friday, after the Inlander, a Pacific Northwest–based blog, published an interview with García in which she alleged that after Hurricane Katrina, the state rebuilt white suburban schools while closing down public schools in black neighborhoods.

When Katrina hit, it hit everybody’s schools. … They rebuilt and modernized all the white-suburb public schools,” Garcia said. “They ended up better than before, and they bulldozed the public schools in the black neighborhoods.”

After Hurricane Katrina swept away much of the city’s school system, the state took over the majority of New Orleans public schools and turned them into charter schools while investing more money in the education system and ramping up efforts to hold those schools accountable for their results. It also fired many of the city’s black teachers and gave families a choice of schools for their children to attend regardless of where they lived.

It was a bold experiment in education reform that continues to spark debate among policymakers.

(The 74: Study Shows New Orleans Students More Likely to Stay in Same School After City’s Education Reforms)

García said in the Inlander interview that the city opened charter schools indiscriminately. 

“And then they just said, ‘All right, come one, come all, open up charter schools and let’s see how you do,’ ” she said. “And a lot of them have done very poorly.”

White quickly issued a rebuttal letter on Monday, calling on García to retract her “inaccurate” statements.

“While your misunderstandings on these issues could be chalked up to perspective or semantics, however, there is no missing the flagrant inaccuracy in your assessment of which school buildings were rebuilt, and for which students, after Hurricane Katrina,” White wrote. “So as to clear the record, I call on you to retract these damaging comments immediately. I look forward to your response.”

White’s letter countered García’s comments by saying state and federal authorities have invested $1.2 billion to reconstruct New Orleans schools. He added that over the next three years, every student will attend class in a new or renovated school building.

It’s hard to know exactly what García meant when she said Louisiana officials bulldozed buildings in black neighborhoods, but she may have been echoing criticisms from activists that former school buildings in the Lower Ninth Ward have been neglected and abandoned.

A spokesperson from the National Education Association did not return a request for comment and clarification.

White said that New Orleans “Mayor [Mitch] Landrieu just did a ribbon-cutting for a $35 million high school … in the Lower Ninth Ward that was attended by luminaries in the African-American community.”

Research also casts doubt on García’s other contention — that many charter schools in New Orleans are performing poorly. In fact, a study from Tulane University’s Douglas Harris showed that the education reforms implemented in the city produced large test-score gains for all students. Still it’s true that those improvements were greatest for white and higher-income students.

García has not spoken publicly about the controversy.

“I think people are owed a comment. It is totally unacceptable, and I say this as a former NEA member, for people who portend to speak for teachers to say flagrantly false things in the media,” White said. “At least look into it when you’re called on it. She owes the people of New Orleans and the people of our entire state an explanation.”

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