Two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of the Gulf Coast, thousands of displaced students and millions of dollars in unfunded school reconstruction projects still plague the region, according to the report released Aug. 29 by the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation (SEF).

The report urged the federal government to adopt a “new response” to restoring education in the affected areas.

That means “doing a full assessment of what the child-care centers, preschools, and K-12 schools need to restore themselves. That’s a lot different than throwing a few million dollars into a bill as it’s going through the hopper,” said Steve Suitts, the foundation’s program director and author of the report.

Billed as the first overall, independent assessment of education along the Gulf Coast since the storm, the report said only 2 percent of the federal government’s hurricane-related funding went toward education recovery.

Other findings in the report:

  • The costs of hurricane destruction in K-12 and higher education were approximately $6.2 billion, but only $1.2 billion in federal funding had been committed to restoring physical structures and property.
  • Displaced students re-enrolled in schools in 49 states, but a lack of adequate federal funding meant that schools with the greatest number of displaced students had insufficient classrooms, staff, and supplies to support them.
  • Nearly one out of every six students in Louisiana’s public colleges and universities dropped out for the 2005-06 school year. In the 2006-07 school year, more than 26,000 students from Louisiana public colleges and nearly 9,000 Mississippi college students remained out of school.
  • “Not since the Great Depression of the 1930s has the United States witnessed so many of its own students thrown out of school,” the report said. “During the last two years, however, the most powerful national government in the world has spent relatively small amounts of time, money, and effort in helping to set right the hurricane-displaced students and the schools they attend.”

    In fact, the report contends, as of the middle of 2007, foreign nations had supplied $131 million for rebuilding and restoring colleges and universities in Louisiana, where the largest destruction of schools occurred–virtually the same amount that the federal government has provided for this purpose.

    These figures don’t include loans the federal government has made to schools for rebuilding. But in a press conference convened to discuss the report, Suitts said, “Loans don’t help recovery; they just buy time. Schools can’t afford to pay back the loan with interest and still stay afloat.”

    During the same press conference, SEF President Lynn Huntley expressed frustration that no federal funds were available to support efforts to locate or re-engage as many as 30,000 K-12 students or more than 60,000 college students who reportedly dropped out of school after Katrina struck.

    “The resources that the federal government has provided are grossly inadequate,” Huntley said. “How, in the Information Age, can’t we account for the relatively small number of children affected by Katrina?”

    Suitts said the foundation’s report analyzed government data, school records, and private surveys to estimate the scale of damage and displacement after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005.

    House Majority Whip James Clyburn said there are “vast and overwhelming” complexities associated with restoring the region’s public education system.

    Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina, toured the Gulf Coast this month as part of a delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He also visited the region last year.

    “I have seen firsthand that the post-hurricane response to rebuilding the public education infrastructure in the Gulf Coast has been inadequate and improvements must be made,” Clyburn wrote in an eMail message to the Associated Press.

    He added: “I believe that the Southern Education Foundation’s report will serve as an important tool to Congress as we further our efforts to reconstruct schools in the Gulf Coast region.”

    Hudson La Force, senior counselor to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, said the foundation’s report contains numerous inaccuracies and fails to accurately depict the role of the U.S. Department of Education and others in aiding the recovery of students and families impacted by the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast.

    La Force continued: “Over the past two years, the U.S. Department of Education has awarded more than $2 billion to K-12 and higher-education institutions impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. These federal funds are intended to supplement significant other resources, such as private insurance and state funding. The department has received praise from numerous local and state officials on its response and is proud of its ongoing efforts as we continue to work with the impacted states and support the recovery through federal grants, low-interest loans, technical support, and guidance.”

    Education officials in Mississippi and Louisiana said they were encouraged by the progress made within their public school systems.

    Mississippi Education Superintendent Hank Bounds said K-12 enrollment in the six coastal counties was at nearly 93 percent. Bounds said that although reconstruction of some buildings has been slow, “given everything that has taken place, I think that the schools are doing remarkably well.”

    Mississippi’s schools received $300 million in restart funds from the federal government, he said.

    The state’s higher-education system along the coast also appears to be rebounding. Classes have resumed at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Park campus, which sustained extensive damage, and enrollment is near where it was before the storm, said Robert Bass, project director of Gulf Coast operations for the state College Board.

    Louisiana created incentive programs to encourage students to return to school, said Kevin Hardy, a Board of Regents spokesman. The most recent came during the summer legislative session when Louisiana lawmakers approved the Go Grant, a need-based college aid program that would award up to $2,000 to full-time students.

    “We’re still down some 20,000 students in our public colleges and universities,” Hardy said. “The Go Grant was initiated to get enrollment up and target those who are most in need of an opportunity for access.”

    The Hurricane Education Leadership Program (HELP) Team, a coalition of ed-tech companies and organizations dedicated to rebuilding Gulf Coast schools as 21st-century learning facilities, declined to comment on the foundation’s report.

    Links:

    Southern Education Foundation

    U.S. Department of Education