ASPEN - Education reform in New Orleans, once considered an impossible scenario, has now taken root with the influx of charter schools since Hurricane Katrina, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Monday.
Landrieu, who was elected mayor of Louisiana's most famous city in 2010, spoke about education and other issues during a discussion with Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
The 51-year-old Democrat is the city's first white mayor since his father, Moon Landrieu, was at the helm of New Orleans government from 1970 to 1978. Despite the storm's displacement of many residents and a lower population count, blacks still hold a 60 percent majority among all races.
Katrina hit and flooded New Orleans in late August 2005, wiping out many of the city's public learning institutions. In the months that followed, the state took over the majority of schools that were habitable and created new ones using temporary buildings. It also paved the way for the creation of many different charter schools, which caused an uproar among thousands of longtime residents and recently fired teachers fighting the reforms, which included higher teacher and student accountability standards.
The critics preferred the longtime neighborhood-school approach and a system that tended to graduate students regardless of low skills in reading, writing and math.
Landrieu was quick to point out that the public-school system was dysfunctional well before Katrina shook it up.
"Katrina didn't cause all of our problems," said Landrieu. "We had a lot of stuff that started happening a long time ago."
Compounding the resistance to school reform, he said, was the city's own culture, which has always resisted change of any kind.
"New Orleans, as you all know, is a very authentic, historic place," Landrieu said. "We don't change very easily even though we know we're doing some things poorly. We kind of get comfortable in our dysfunction from time to time."
Katrina basically created an "opportunity" that allowed for the drastic changes in K-12 education, he said. "But people don't like that word, opportunity," Landrieu said, noting that many residents associate the word with someone else's potential gains and not their own.
The pre-Katrina school system managed by the Orleans Parish School Board was highly centralized, and teachers belonged to a powerful union that was more focused on getting benefits to its members than assisting in improving the schools, Landrieu said.
"(The system) was fraught with corruption; it was fraught with all kinds of stuff," he said. "Katrina happened right at the time the charter school movement was moving forward. ...We had the chance to do it astronomically faster because now the state had taken over the school system and created an autocratic governing structure."
The result of the changes, Landrieu said, is that New Orleans now has more charter schools than any other city in the United States. "It appears from most of the testing data that the achievement gap between poor kids from the inner city and other kids is closing fast," he said.
In remarks following the Isaacson interview, the mayor said he didn't think that the troubles surrounding the New Orleans Saints would lead to local economic woes this fall.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell lowered the boom on the team earlier this year by suspending Coach Sean Payton for the full 2012 season and also suspending several players for varying lengths of time because of an alleged bounty program in which team members were compensated for hits that injured or sought to injure opposing players.
"I think it's a really unfortunate set of circumstances for everybody," Landrieu said. "I think it's gonna blow over. We have an unconditional love for the Saints. That's kind of what you have to do. I mean, we used to go to games with bags on our heads, instead of not going. So we love the Saints and we think it's gonna be fine."
He also commented on attempts to reorganize city government in the wake of former Mayor Ray Nagin's administration. Nagin, some news reports out of Louisiana have suggested in the last week, faces the possibility of indictment in connection with some lucrative city contracts he allegedly helped to procure in exchange for financial favors to a family business.
"If you want people to work with you, they have to know that they're working with an honest government," Landrieu said. "One of the first things I did was get at the root of what has caused a lot of these problems, which is the procurement system in New Orleans. So it's not 'pay to play' anymore."
Landrieu said he completely reorganized the way city government functions with a "best-practices model." As part of that model, he created a deputy-mayor system with the goal of streamlining a City Hall organizational chart which he called "indecipherable" during his first months in office.
Under that system, his administration hired six deputy mayors. He said the changes bode well for the city's economic future.
"When you restore the level of confidence in government, people will begin to work with you more," he said. "I think people are smart enough now to know that all that stuff in the paper these days is about the way New Orleans was over two years ago, with the previous administration.
"You've got to prove it to people though because there's a long history of a bad reputation. You've got to change that through good deeds and you have to do it every day, and I think we are."