U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce

Testimony of Scott S. Cowen - President, Tulane University

April 26, 2006

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee: Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today regarding educational recovery in the city of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina came ashore on Aug. 29, 2005. We have made enormous progress despite almost overwhelming challenges, and still have a long way to go before education in our city and region are back to anything that approaches what we used to deem “normal.”

First, I want to thank the Committee for your actions in helping higher education recovery efforts in New Orleans—specifically, legislation that provided loan forgiveness to our students, the reallocation of campus-based aid, and the waiver authority given to the Department of Education. I would also like to thank the Department of Education for its tireless efforts on behalf of our institutions and our students.

Higher Education: The Good News

When Tulane and the other 14 public and private colleges and universities in New Orleans reopened in January, it represented a significant step in our city’s recovery. Of the more than 84,000 college students that were enrolled in our institutions prior to Katrina, more than 55,000 of them returned. Tulane welcomed back 88 percent of our full-time students, including 85 percent of our freshman class—remarkable, considering these students spent only a few hours on campus before having to evacuate. The energy and enthusiasm these students brought with them instilled an almost instantaneous air of hope into a city still reeling from the devastation of Katrina.

Our colleges and universities also represent a significant part of the New Orleans post-Katrina employment picture. Approximately 20,000 jobs are associated with higher education in the city, and most of our universities struggled to continue paying our faculties and staffs during the evacuation and post-Katrina period—both because it was the right thing to do, and because we knew a mass exodus of educated professionals to other areas would deal another devastating blow to not only our own institutions but the city, state and region.

The return of our higher education workforces throughout November, December and January reinvigorated our neighborhoods and businesses. They are key cornerstones to rebuilding our city and region.

Higher Education: The Challenges

The future of higher education in New Orleans looks much brighter than we ever could have hoped for eight months ago following Katrina. But I would be remiss if I presented a picture of complete recovery, because that is simply not the case. Our higher education community, including Tulane University, still faces many challenges before it can say it has fully recovered from Katrina.

The price of our January return and reopening has been steep. I will speak primarily of Tulane University’s experiences here because that is what I know best, but rest assured that each and every higher education institution in the New Orleans area is undergoing significant ongoing challenges in terms of finances and student retention.

As I stated previously, Tulane University felt it was crucial to continue paying employees during the four months we were closed so that we could retain critical faculty and staff members. We also faced more than $150 million in physical damage to our campus. In order to reopen in January, we borrowed $150 million and countless more in lost research and library assets, which maxed out our borrowing capacity. We have seen no money at all from FEMA and little relief from private insurance. In order to achieve financial stability, in December we announced a sweeping reorganization of Tulane University that represents the largest university restructuring of an American institution in more than a century. We were forced to lay off more than 400 full-time staff members and more than 160 faculty members, including a third of our medical school faculty, plus eliminate long-standing academic programs in engineering and reduce our Division I athletic programs by 50 percent. The reorganization will save us $50 million, but we still face a $100 million budget deficit this year as well as a $25 million deficit next year.  Attracting and retaining top-tier students and faculty to New Orleans remains difficult despite our best efforts because of the lingering doubts about the ability of the city itself to fully recover.

Higher Education: Looking Forward

Put simply, New Orleans and its surrounding region cannot recover without the survival of its colleges and universities. Higher education pumps approximately $3 billion each year into the region’s economy. Tulane University is a major part of that. Prior to Katrina, Tulane University was the largest private employer in Orleans Parish; now it is the single largest employer of any type. The university’ economic impact on the New Orleans economy before Katrina totaled more than $842 million a year; our impact on the state’s economy totaled more than $1.12 billion a year. The closing of Tulane University for four months following Hurricane Katrina had a devastating effect on not only the university, but the city and state.

We will continue to need your help in our ongoing efforts to revive higher education in the city and region. I understand that Congress faces many issues related to Gulf Coast recovery, and that spending must be done wisely and with an eye toward what will offer the greatest benefit to the most people. As one of the few fully functioning industries in New Orleans, a healthy higher education community—with its influx of intellectual capital, its ability to conduct and attract high-quality research and educational programs to the region, and its economic development potential—is crucial not only to the region’s immediate recovery but to its future success.

Congress can play a major role in ensuring the health of our higher education community. As our institution members have discussed with your Committee, we are still in desperate need of additional institutional assistance. The establishment of an Education Relief Program, along the lines approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee in the pending Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill, would provide funds to assist us with the overwhelming task of compensating for lost tuition and revenue while we also rebuild and repair our facilities. I realize such a program may be difficult in these tight budgetary times, but we ask the Committee’s careful consideration of this proposal, or something similar, before making any final judgments. The Committee’s ultimate support for additional relief, along the lines of the Senate action thus far, is vital to our institutions. I would emphasize that the Senate’s Education Relief Program is a re-payable loan program for only those colleges and universities that were forced to suspend operations and were not able to re-open fully in existing facilities due to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  The Secretary of Education would administer the program and provide support directly to the institutions, something that is critical to the get the relief to only those who need it and to ensure taxpayer’s dollars are spent wisely.

If the Senate Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill is sent to conference committee with the House, with the Education Relief Program intact, your Committee’s continued support and that of the House Appropriations Committee and House Leaders is critical to our short- and long-term survival and success in rebuilding New Orleans.

As I have said, Tulane has done surprisingly well in retaining our undergraduates in the wake of Katrina. Unfortunately, the picture is not as rosy with our graduate students. The consolidation of many of our graduate programs, required for financial viability, has made it difficult to attract these students back to New Orleans. If the region is to fully recover, we must address this problem. Not only do graduate students drive local economies through their participation in research, they fill highly skilled jobs and represent a potential resource for the reconstruction and revitalization of New Orleans. Graduate students aren’t just bright—they’re tireless, enthusiastic and engaged, and many would relish the opportunity to use their expertise in bringing New Orleans back through research, development, planning, engineering, and volunteerism. But this opportunity is not enough in and of itself—graduate students need financial support so they can devote their full attention to their academic and volunteer activities. Within the Department of Education, there are several graduate programs that could be helpful to us if the Committee would recommend temporary preference to institutions affected by the hurricanes and students applying to our institutions. These include:

  • Graduate Assistance in Areas of Need (GANN);
  • Javits Fellowships;
  • Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program.

Outside the Department of Education, programs for which your support would be very helpful include: the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships; NSF Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeships, National Institutes of Health Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Research Training Grants and Fellowships, Department of Defense National Defense Science and Engineering Fellowship Program; and the Department of Homeland Security Fellowships and Scholarships Program.

K-12 Education: The Good news

The damage from Hurricane Katrina and subsequent flooding in the city of New Orleans is still being tallied. But with disaster comes opportunity, and nowhere is that more evident than in K-12 public education in New Orleans. Prior to Katrina, New Orleans had one of the worst public school systems in the nation. Katrina has given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn it into one of the best.

The Orleans Parish public school district, with roughly 60,000 students pre-Katrina, was the 49th-largest public school district in the United States. The numbers tell the story of the problems this school system faced:

  • Of 117 public schools, 102 were academic “failures” by any number of measures and were struggling to improve academic performance to avoid state takeover.
  • Seventy-five percent of eighth-graders scored below state averages and had failed to reach basic proficiency in English. 
  • Dropout rates were the seventh highest in the United States and four times the Louisiana average.
  • Decades of neglect and mismanagement had created both a budget shortfall and serious debt load for the parish school board.

Before Katrina, the state of Louisiana developed a Recovery School District to take command of the five lowest-performing schools. After Katrina, the remainder of the 102 failing schools were put under the auspices of the state-run district.

Since schools began re-opening in November 2005, each school has reached their full capacity within one to two weeks of their opening.  To date, 25 of the 117 schools have reopened, serving 12,000 students—which represents only 20 percent of the pre-Katrina student population.  The U.S. Department of Education and Federal government continue to provide assistance to help our city recover and get families back on their feet.  The Department of Education has provided more than $20 million through a special charter school grant to Louisiana, enabling numerous public schools in New Orleans to reopen as charter schools, expediting children’s education and the region’s recovery.  70 percent of public schools currently open are charter schools, managed by the Recovery School District, the Orleans Parish School Board, or the State Board of Education. 

As one of 17 members of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission and chairman of its committee on public education, I was pleased to have led a team in carefully envisioning what our troubled public school system could become if it were given enough planning, leadership and resources.

The Bring New Orleans Back Education Committee led a comprehensive process to develop a plan to transform New Orleans school system. We received input from a diverse group of more than 1,500 students, parents, teachers, business leaders and community members from New Orleans to ensure the plan represented the voice of our city. Additionally, education experts from around the world provided insights into what has worked in high-performing schools with similar students and similar socioeconomic factors. Using this extensive research, the Education Committee developed a plan to fundamentally change the way we run our schools.  In January, the Education Committee presented a blueprint for reinventing New Orleans’ public school system. There is a great hope for this plan, and recognition by everyone involved that we have a rare opportunity to turn things around.

            Among the plans and goals:

  • Delivering learning and achievement for all students, regardless of race, socioeconomic class or where they live in New Orleans, with the goal of graduating all students ready for college and the workplace. New Orleans public school students are 96 percent African-American and three-quarters of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs. That should have absolutely no bearing on the quality of the education they receive or the opportunities that education will afford them.
  • Developing a new school-focused philosophy that empowers the schools to make more of their own financial and administrative decisions rather than relying on a central oversight board.
  • Establishing a new Educational Network Model that organizes schools into small groups, or networks, to provide support, foster collaboration and ensure accountability.
  • Encouraging new partnerships with business, faith-based, or community groups to develop programs for learning enrichment and emotional and psychological well-being.

We can take advantage of this opportunity to systemically transform the New Orleans public school system, which can be used as a model for other urban school districts.

K-12 Education: The Challenges

We have a unified vision for what the New Orleans public school system should look like. Our challenge as we move into the fall, when we expect up to 50 percent of our pre-Katrina public school students to be back, is to make sure that schools are reopened in accordance with that long-term plan.

There are three key challenges New Orleans faces as it reopens and rebuilds its public school system.

First, the results of an extensive demographic study place fall student enrollment projections between 28,500 and 34,000.  This projection, and the fact that each subsequent school fills to capacity shortly after opening, substantiate the need for more schools in New Orleans for the 2006-07 school year.  The currently available facilities will not provide the necessary capacity to meet this demand; therefore, additional facilities are required.

Second, many decisions regarding short-term planning will have to take into consideration the repopulation of various areas of the parish, the student population in those areas, and the cost to rebuild schools that meet the flood mitigation requirements.  There are multiple governing bodies responsible for making these decisions, including the Orleans Parish School Board, the Recovery School District, and the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.  As they work towards re-building public education in the parish, immense coordination in the short and long terms and a shared vision are the only ways to ensure success.

Third, the Orleans Parish school system is facing a financial crisis.  Without the help of one-time funds, loans and deferral of substantial unemployment compensation liabilities, the system faces an estimated $111 million cash-flow shortfall through June 30 and $275 million in legacy debt. Decreases in local revenue mean an estimated $1,400 per child less in 2006-07 than before Katrina.

Given sound financial management, dedicated leadership and a spirit of cooperation among all members of our community, the outlook for the Orleans Parish public school system is brighter than it has been in many, many years. It will require vigilance and diligence on everyone’s part to ensure that we continue to make progress toward the long-term vision that has been developed.

K-12 Education: Looking Forward

Thanks to the federal funds that have been made available to the New Orleans education system, schools have been able to accommodate an increasing number of returning families.  Unfortunately, as is the case with higher education, the K-12 system has received no assistance from FEMA in covering the considerable repair costs for its facilities. Katrina damaged 70 percent of the public school buildings in Orleans Parish, causing an estimated $800-$900 million in property damage and more than $250 million in business interruption losses. 

Currently, the school system is planning for the return of twice as many students this fall.  It has been determined that the repair of existing facilities to be used as temporary facilities, as opposed to the installation of modular classrooms, is the most cost-effective and viable strategy.  In addition, this approach is more educationally sound for the public school children of Orleans Parish.  There have been neither funds nor a commitment of funds for temporary repairs that must be made before the next hurricane season begins on June 1—a deadline that is virtually impossible to achieve.  Therefore, I urge you to support the school system’s request for approval from FEMA for the repairs to these facilities to be classified as Category B temporary work under the Stafford Act.  The precedent has been set for consideration of this request based on temporary repair of existing applicant buildings in the California State/Northridge repairs in a previous disaster.  The same consideration for this request is requested.

As I previously mentioned, the deadline for temporary repairs ends June 30.  With less than a third of the necessary work complete, I am requesting that the Committee support the extension of temporary repairs until the end of the year.  Without the assistance from FEMA for facilities and the extension of the repair completion deadline, we run the risk of not having enough classrooms ready to educate returning children in August.

Higher Education and K-12: Conclusion

Repaired levees and rebuilt homes and businesses are things New Orleans needs in order to survive in the short term. But it is through its system of education at all levels that the city can achieve the substantive change, success and energy that it needs to become a healthy and thriving urban center.

Both our higher education institutions and our K-12 public education system have many challenges still to overcome. But with the support of the American people and through our public leaders such as those of you on this Committee, we will recover. And through our recovery will come the biggest-possible boost to the long-term revitalization of the city of New Orleans.

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