For many months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the City of New Orleans, residents struggled to return home. Displaced residents found themselves navigating a maze of obstacles: securing affordable housing in a safe neighborhood, obtaining gainful employment at a living wage and with reasonable benefits to care for a family. And then they were forced to add to that list, finding a school for their children.
After the storm, the State of Louisiana assumed control over most of the city’s schools concerted many of them into charter schools. And the local school district operated only a handful of schools, all of which had selective admissions criteria, Parents seeking to enroll their children in local schools had no central location at which to register. Instead, they were forced to compete in a “market” of schools, bouncing around from one school to the next in search of a seat for their children. Invariably, the schools told hundreds of parents that they either had no room, or had adopted minimum academic criteria or other restrictive admissions requirements that students could not meet. As a result, hundreds of students were denied access to education when local schools turned them away or placed them on waiting lists for an indefinite length of time. Throughout the month of January, 2007, at least 300 children were refused enrollment, placed on the wait list, and denied any and all educational services at public schools in Orleans Parish. Many of the students lived in temporary shelters, temporary trailer parks or in packed apartments or houses with numerous relatives. And, the lack of available education and child-care left many families with no viable options.
LDF filed suit against the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD), the state Department of Education, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), and the Orleans Parish School Board, on behalf of a class of students and their parents, alleging violations of rights under state and federal law. The claims alleged an outright deprivation of education and violation of rights under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act – a law designed to protect the needs of children living in transitional living situations of the type face by families after the devastating hurricanes.
LDF demanded that every child who had been displaced due to the devastating impact of hurricanes Katrina and Rita be enrolled in school without delay. In response, state officials immediately announced that they would enroll every child on the waiting lists, LDF proceeded with the litigation to protect the educational rights of every school-aged child who return to New Orleans over the following months.
Prior to the conclusion of a hearing in federal district court, the parties reached an agreement in principle. And in June 2007, BESE adopted a formal policy that (1) required the RSD to enroll students in classes within two days of registration and (2) prohibited the RSD from placing any students on a waiting list in the future. In the wake of this successful litigation, state and local officials created a “welcome center” to receive students returning after being displaced by the storms, and took another major step by adopting a uniform application form and process for local public and schools – an idea initially recommended by LDF attorneys during settlement negotiations.