Why are the Schools Still Closed?
Much of New Orleans has reopened, including half the hotels and one-third of the restaurants, but only one or two public schools - and those for just eight days before the holidays. Why? One explanation is that parents made other plans post-Katrina, and the children are in schools in other states until the New Year. This is supported by the fact that only a modest percentage (about 10%) of Catholic schools have reopened. It is also plausible that officials are especially careful about environmental risks when it comes to schools, though one would think that if restaurants and hotels can reopen, schools can as well.
Media coverage has avoided the question of which teachers and administrators continue to be paid. Some teachers and administrators have been reported as looking for work in other states, and some have taught in temporary or temporarily expanded schools, so that reopening in mid-term may present too great a coordination problem.
Another hidden variable is the prospect and future of insurance payments. It is likely that many of the schools will be bulldozed and estimates of insurance coverage (for the schools themselves) are in the $1 billion range. An interesting question is where that money will go. It is possible that the new New Orleans will have a much smaller population, and thus many fewer students. Politicians may be in the process of cutting school expenditures and readying themselves to pounce on insurance proceeds.
Then there is one, optimistic scenario. It may be that as time goes by, enough underperforming administrators and teachers will go away. Much as dilapidated buildings were mercifully removed by Katrina, some of the human capital may have been relocated. Some of these people might do better with a fresh start, removed from a culture of corruption and low expectations. If so, then the way to assess recovery is not to ask what percent of buses, hotels, restaurants, schools, and so forth are back in business. If the schools were up and running two days after the floods subsided, we would worry that various interest groups could not wait to get back at the trough, and feared a state or federal takeover of their beloved institution. Delay may bring cleansing - but keep your eye on those insurance proceeds.
A similar cooling off period may apply to politicians. Very little has been written about the interesting question of how to decide when to postpone elections after a crisis. It is not just that a crisis can have short-term voting effects (as was alleged following the attack in the Spanish train system on the eve of elections or even with respect to November elections in NY after September 11), but also that a serious crisis can take a large subset of voters away from the polls. Polling might have been carried out in Houston and in Baton Rouge, but the larger question is how and when to suspend elections. The point here is simply that suspension (or martial law or a temporary federal takeover) can clear the decks. We do not normally think this is a good thing during a crisis, but that is because crises do not often strike at places so well known for local corruption and poor schools.