The Obameter

Rebuild schools in New Orleans

"Will help communities in the Gulf make necessary school infrastructure investments so all kids from all backgrounds have safe and supportive environments to learn."


Ten years later, billions from FEMA for New Orleans schools

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan infamously called Hurricane Katrina "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans."

The storm destroyed or damaged most of the city's 120-something schools, displacing massive amounts of students and sending an already broken system into further disarray. Ten years later, we wanted to check in.

Obama's promise specified infrastructure, so we'll focus on federal efforts in rebuilding. The Obama-backed 2009 stimulus package allocated $1.4 billion in education funds for Louisiana and $1.1 billion for Mississippi. Since the storms hit in 2005, the two states have respectively received $3.37 billion and $334 million for education from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

New Orleans specifically was awarded a bulk $1.8 billion FEMA grant in 2010 to rebuild and repair about 80 schools. As of May 2015, 28 projects have wrapped up and 52 are underway, while eight have yet to begin.

The school district overseeing the recovery, however, emphasized in 2011 that FEMA dollars alone "will not fund renovation costs for the most stable buildings in the city right now." But that's not the feds' fault, since the construction costs were 20 percent higher than estimated, according to a 2015 report by Tulane University's Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives.

Report co-author Vincent Rossmeier said he could not comment on whether the FEMA grant was sufficient, but added that "the facilities were already in terrible shape prior to the storm and that the settlement was agreed upon by all parties." (Before Katrina, Louisiana's education system ranked among the worst in the nation, and most of New Orleans schools were crumbling, underperforming, or both.)

Currently, enrollment has returned to 67 percent of pre-Katrina levels, with the vast majority of the students attending charter schools. The transformation into a nearly all-charter system has sparked intense debate -- critics point to, for example, the performance divide between predominantly white and majority black schools. Overall, though, test scores, per pupil spending, and state rankings have all surpassed pre-Katrina levels.

The Obama administration has doled out billions of dollars in federal funding to rebuild and repair Gulf coast schools. While that's not enough to sustain the continuing recovery efforts, he only promised to "help" rebuild schools, not solve all of the problems. So we rate this one Promise Kept.

Editor's note: On the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, PolitiFact has partnered with The Lens to report on President Barack Obama's campaign promises about the storm's impact on New Orleans. The Lens is a nonprofit, public-interest newsroom that covers the New Orleans area.


Email interview with Vincent Rossmeier, policy director at the Cowen Institute at Tulane University, Aug. 4, 2015

Email interview with Brittany Trotter, spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Aug. 4, 2015

U.S. Department of Education, 'Mississippi to Receive More Than $129 Million in Additional Recovery Funds,' June 15, 2000

U.S. Department of Education, 'Louisiana to Receive More Than $191 Million in Additional Recovery Funds,' May 10, 2000

Federal Emergency Management Agency, Mississippi Hurricane Katrina, July 30, 2015

Federal Emergency Management Agency, Louisiana -- Hurricanes Katrina & Rita, July 30, 2015

Federal Emergency Management Agency, Innovative Solutions Put New Orleans Area Students Back in School, Aug. 3, 2015

Recovery School District, 'School Facilities Master Plan for Orleans Parish,' Oct. 2011

Cowen Institute, 'The State of Public Education in New Orleans, 10 Years After Hurricane Katrina,' June 2015

Louisiana Department of Education, Recovery School District, accessed Aug. 4, 2015

Times-Picayune, 'New Orleans public schools pre-Katrina and now, by the numbers,' Aug. 4, 2014

Times-Picayune, '$1.8 billion from FEMA for Hurricane Katrina school rebuilding is 'worth the wait,' Sen. Mary Landrieu says,' Aug. 26, 2010

Stimulus package, budget and flexibility have helped rebuild schools

The Obama-backed economic stimulus package approved in February includes nearly $1.3 billion in education funds for Louisiana, of which $840 million has already been made available. In Mississippi, about $900 million in education funds have been announced, of which over $600 million has been made available.

Also, President Barack Obama"s 2010 budget included $30 million for counties in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas that were impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Funds could be used to improve education through such activities as replacing instructional materials and equipment; paying teacher incentives; building, modernizing, or renovating school buildings; beginning or expanding Advanced Placement or other rigorous instructional curricula; starting or expanding charter schools; and supporting afterschool or extended learning time activities.

This year, 16 schools have reopened in the New Orleans area for the first time since Katrina hit in 2005.

According to a May 16, 2009, story in the Times-Picayune, a major funding hurdle was overcome with the Obama administration when two Louisiana Recovery Authority officials persuaded federal officials "to allow for aggressive pooling of school rebuilding money expected from FEMA's Public Assistance program, so that dozens of older, badly damaged buildings could be mothballed or razed in favor of building a small collection of state-of-the-art campuses."

In May, FEMA earmarked about $150 million for rebuilding four public schools in the city. Construction of the schools has been under way for more than a year, and in August, the first newly constructed school, Langston Hughes Elementary, opened in New Orleans. Ultimately, FEMA expects to spend more than $640 million at the four campuses and on rebuilding or repairing other public schools in Orleans Parish. The pooled rebuilding allows them to consolidate construction on fewer sites.

In his promise, Obama mentioned school needs for "kids," so we assume he was talking about elementary and high school rebuilding and improvements, but we note that there has been some progress with higher education as well. The federal government also resolved a longstanding reimbursement dispute with flood-ravaged Southern University at New Orleans in July when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the university would get $42 million in additional grants to help rebuild (bringing its poststorm federal aid to $92 million).

According to "The New Orleans Index," which tracks the recovery of New Orleans, public and private school enrollment has continued to grow, and reached 78 percent of pre-Katrina levels by the spring of 2009.

Much work still needs to be done to improve the school systems in the Gulf states. But Obama never promised he would completely fix all of the school woes in the region, only that he would "help" to make necessary infrastructure investments. And with hundreds of millions of dollars in the stimulus and the proposed $30 million in his current budget, plus the effort to pool the rebuilding money, he's done that. We rate this one Promise Kept.



AP, "Promises, Promises: Obama wins praise for Katrina," by Ben Evans and Becky Bohrer, Aug. 27, 2009

Times-Picayine, "Southern University at New Orleans gets long-awaited rebuilding grant" by  Bill Barrow, Aug. 17, 2009

Times-Picayune, "Red tape eased in rebuilding of N.O. schools," by Coleman Warner, May 16, 2009

White House, Fact Sheet: Background on Gulf Coast Recovery and Nationwide Disaster Preparedness and Response Efforts

Times-Picayune, "'New Orleans has a unique place in...American life, and that's why it's so important now.'' Analysis," by Jonathan Tilove and Bruce Alpert, Aug. 23, 2009

Interview with Allison Plyer, Deputy Director, Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, Aug. 28, 2009

Interview with Christina Stephens, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Recovery Authority, Aug. 28, 2009