What Can the United States Learn from International Experiences with Education in Displacement?
In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the United States has joined other nations in facing the global problem of displacement. Displacement by natural disaster and conflict is a common occurrence in other parts of the world. There are over 19.2 million refugees worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),1 and the Global IDP Project reports 25.3 million internally displaced people.2 With disaster now at home, issues of displacement have arrived on the front pages of U.S. newspapers and on nightly television. They also have arrived in our schools.
Hurricane Katrina displaced more than 372,000 of Louisiana’s and Mississippi’s public and private school students. As millions of schoolchildren in other parts of the country returned to school this September, many of these displaced students had nowhere to go. National Public Radio reported that of 126 public schools in New Orleans, all but sixteen were destroyed. Across the region, more than 600 public and private K–12 schools were rendered unusable.
Most government officials, emergency workers, and the U.S. public agree that the country was not prepared for a natural disaster on this scale, or for the displacement that resulted. As is common in situations of displacement elsewhere, local communities stepped into this void to respond to the needs of displaced students. Within days of Hurricane Katrina, school districts in Texas, Arkansas, Georgia, and elsewhere around the country developed plans to accommodate displaced students. The Houston Independent School District, for example, reported enrolling over 5,300 displaced students by the middle of September.
The work, however, has only just begun. The implications of this displacement for students, families, schools, and school districts extend far beyond finding spaces for children in classrooms. What are the academic implications for students who now find themselves in a new school, with new teachers, classmates, and curricula? How will schools and communities address the trauma that children have suffered and the potential long-term mental health effects? Financially and logistically, how will the devastated schools and school districts rebuild, and what are the problems and possibilities that accompany the process of starting from scratch?
International contexts of displacement provide a long history of how governments, nongovernmental organizations, and communities have addressed similar educational situations. While some of the challenges in a resource-rich setting like the United States are different in magnitude from those in developing countries, many are similar in nature. As the long-term work begins here, we believe the vision for a new Gulf Coast will be made stronger if leaders and stakeholders consider and apply the lessons the field of international education has to offer, especially from developing countries.
Ever since the large-scale displacements of World War II, U.N. agencies, multilateral and bilateral donors and lenders, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations have worked on all continents to extend education programs to children affected by displacement. Recent years have witnessed advances in the coordination, coverage, and quality of services in displacement situations. These advances have occurred as a result of the expertise of international organizations such as the International Rescue Committee, CARE, and Save the Children, as well as agency networks like the Interagency Network for Education in Emergencies. Many of these agencies have offices in the United States and work in collaboration with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, and with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Emergency education programs draw heavily on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Dakar Framework for Action, Education for All, adopted by the World Education Forum in 2000. Building on these foundations, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees — the international body mandated with providing education for refugees — identifies four reasons why education is essential in displacement situations. Within the field of emergency education, there is broad consensus on these aims.
First, primary education is a human right and should be universal for all children, regardless of their location or situation. Second, education is a tool for protection. Through schools, the exploitation or abuse of children can be identified, as can children who are in need of medical or psychological attention. Education also builds stronger communities, which ultimately protects children. Third, education helps meet psychosocial needs. In particular, structured activities provide a sense of routine and normalcy for displaced children. Fourth, education promotes self-reliance and social and economic development by building human capital. This human capital is needed for the future reconstruction and development of displaced persons’ areas of origin or settlement.
As with much work in education, it is far easier to agree with principles like these than to put them into action. Technocratic responses that focus on allocation of funds and formulation of policy are simpler and more common, especially in the immediate aftermath of disaster. However, organizations such as the Academy for Educational Development (AED) have documented the fact that these technocratic responses are not sufficient in the education sphere, as they may be in other areas of emergency response, such as provision of housing and food. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, which tore through Central America in 1998, AED worked in Nicaragua and Honduras and found that grassroots community involvement in the rebuilding of schools and in teacher training over three years ultimately yielded more tangible results than the kind of high-level policymaking and reallocation of funds that have been prominent in the immediate responses to the hurricanes in the United States.3
Indeed, the federal government’s short-term response to the hurricanes has focused heavily on providing more money to the schools and school systems most directly affected by the tragedy. For example, President Bush’s September 2005 proposal to help K–12 students affected by the hurricanes allocates up to $1.9 billion to school districts, including charter schools, that enrolled at least ten displaced children. This funding would reimburse districts for the unexpected costs of educating these newly enrolled children for the 2005–06 school year, and in some cases would increase the share of federal funds provided to school districts from 9 percent to 90 percent of a district’s average per-pupil expenditure.
The federal government has also been refreshingly willing to cut through its own red tape, allowing affected states and school districts flexibility to reallocate existing federal education funds in order to target their most urgent needs. In early September, for example, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings notified chief state school officers of initial measures allowing states to transfer or reallocate federal funds to school districts affected by the hurricanes. In addition, the president’s comprehensive education proposal would give most funding for Louisiana and Mississippi directly to state governments, rather than to school districts, allowing state leaders to decide the best way to divide funds between the districts enrolling displaced students and those within the severely impacted areas that are working to reopen schools.
Freeing up funds for short-term fiscal relief is certainly necessary. But it is far from sufficient. We urge leaders to turn their attention now to addressing the longer-term academic and psychosocial needs of the students affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Bridging the gap between framing abstract principles of good practice and actually taking action on these issues has proven difficult globally. However, decades of cumulative experience, primarily from developing countries, will be useful in charting the way forward domestically. The situation in which we find ourselves in the aftermath of the hurricanes is an important reminder that this country does not have all the answers. In this case, useful expertise can be found in the experiences of countries to which the United States seldom looks for ideas and best practices.
Between January and May 2004, the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies involved over 2,250 individuals from fifty countries in developing a set of standards to help practitioners put principles into action. These Minimum Standards for Education in Emergencies (MSEE) contain important ideas that can help to shape our long-term response to the hurricanes and guide early responses to future disasters. Five lessons from the MSEE are particularly applicable to the current hurricane response efforts.4
First, teachers and teacher quality should be the cornerstone of any plan to reconstruct education systems and provide stability for displaced children. In a move that could prove counter to this international wisdom, Secretary Spellings announced in September 2005 that she would examine requests for waivers of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) “highly qualified teacher” requirements in states affected by the hurricanes. Given the legitimate problems concerning the supply of teachers in hurricane-affected states, these waivers may provide teachers for children who would otherwise be without in the near term. In the long term, however, officials must not ignore issues of teacher quality. We urge the secretary to do all she can to make sure that students affected by the hurricanes are educated by the most highly qualified teachers, as quickly as possible. International experience, embodied in the Minimum Standards, suggests that the sooner federal, state, and local governments emphasize teacher quality, the better the results for children.
Second, for reasons of convenience and logistics, displaced students are often separated from local children in the areas where they settle. Internationally, this situation is common: Refugee camps are set up for ease in delivering services, and displaced children attend schools built and run especially for them. Recent research by the Refugee Law Project in Uganda, however, finds that when displaced students are integrated with local populations, children are happier, more stable, and think more about the future and less about their traumatic pasts than do their counterparts who are segregated into schools for the displaced.5 States and school districts hosting displaced students will want to keep this international experience in mind as they make decisions about whether to allow the creation of charter schools that put displaced students in largely segregated settings, such as the New Orleans West College Prep school in Houston.6 The initiatives of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Shreveport, Louisiana, are more consistent with international principles: According to diocesan officials, these schools are providing uninterrupted education to displaced students by integrating them, free of charge, into local elementary and high schools.7
Third, for displaced students, the future is frequently uncertain. Host schools are often similarly unsure of whether displaced students will remain or leave as quickly as they came. This is certainly true in the Gulf Region, where districts have pressed for aid to be released on a quarterly basis, in order to account for continuously shifting numbers of displaced students. When mobility is so great, schools sometimes come to see their role as akin to a holding ground, and displaced students see their new schools as temporary. However, even given high mobility rates, the Minimum Standards emphasize that schools should present themselves to students as stable places. Schools can demonstrate this especially well by attending to learning and psychosocial activities from the day a student enrolls.
Fourth, schools must take an active role in addressing the mental health effects of traumatic events on children. In October 2005, Secretary Spellings led a series of six roundtable discussions in the Gulf Region school districts most heavily affected by the hurricanes, uniting mental health experts, teachers, and school administrators in the ongoing task of helping children cope. In addition, the National Mental Health Association, Save the Children, and the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, among others, partnered with local affiliates and volunteer counselors in the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes to provide fact sheets to parents and ongoing psychological support to children in their new schools. But the experience of nonprofit organizations such as the vivo foundation, which has worked in Somalia, Sri Lanka, and Uganda, demonstrates that it is very difficult to provide high-quality mental health treatment on a mass scale. In order to continually deliver mental health services with individualized attention in situations of mass displacement, states and localities must have adequate financial resources and appropriate technical expertise. We urge Secretary Spellings to build on her initial efforts and provide proper funding and technical support to schools addressing the consequences of trauma.
Fifth, in situations of displacement, the marginalization of low-income children and children from racial and ethnic minorities is often exacerbated, and inequalities are magnified. During the war in the former Yugoslavia, for example, violence against the Romani ethnic minority increased as the few safeguards preventing discrimination against ethnic minorities that did exist were destroyed. In the United States, no witness to the hurricanes could fail to notice the role that race and socioeconomic status played in determining whether people were able to access timely transport out of New Orleans, adequate food and shelter, and life-saving help. We are concerned that students of color will continue to experience this kind of discrimination in the aftermath of the hurricanes. The U.S. Department of Education has given states the option of establishing a separate subgroup for displaced students for the purpose of NCLB testing and accountability requirements for the 2005–06 school year, in exchange for their commitment to carrying out NCLB’s requirements in the face of their new challenges. We hope that this change will ensure that states and school districts that have enrolled displaced students do more than just take them in, but actually educate them. However, federal officials will need to be watchful that states do not use this category as an opportunity to ignore this group of students.
Existing NCLB provisions concerning natural disasters would allow the secretary of education to exempt states and districts from “adequate yearly progress” requirements, state and local report card requirements, and the placement of schools into “corrective action” for low performance. Regardless of other critiques we may have of NCLB, we hope the secretary will grant requests for these exemptions sparingly. Nationwide, and particularly in the affected southern states, children of color are already concentrated in low-performing schools. We urge all stakeholders to vigilantly monitor the academic progress of minority students so that the hurricanes are not used as an excuse for the African American, Vietnamese, and Latino students who dominated the New Orleans schools, for example, to be further marginalized.
Despite the immense difficulties schools and districts still face, the aftermath of Katrina and Rita provides new possibilities to rebuild school systems and ultimately make them more effective than they were before. Early experiences from countries such as Sierra Leone and Angola suggest that for this reconstruction to occur, the government, the nonprofit sector, communities, families, and students themselves must collaborate and plan carefully to execute a common vision. In that vein, we commend the U.S. Senate for its unanimous vote on November 3, 2005, approving a $1.66 billion aid package for public and private schools that have taken in students displaced by the hurricanes. The bipartisan plan, authored by Senators Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), replaces a much more controversial plan introduced by President Bush, which would have given direct payments to parents of displaced public and private school students to reenroll their children in private schools. The president’s plan was immediately denounced as a national school voucher scheme by the National Education Association and many Congressional Democrats, unnecessarily politicizing, in our view, a situation that cries out for a nonpartisan response.
The bipartisan plan, by contrast, will deliver aid to both public and private school students who are reenrolling in private schools in a nonpolitical way. Instead of providing direct payments to parents, it will disburse money to public school districts, which will then make payments of $6,000 per general education student and $7,500 per special education student to private and parochial schools. This system mirrors the one long used by public schools to reimburse private schools for special education when public schools are unable to provide appropriate services. In our view, it is a much better means of serving the needs of the unusually large private school population in the Gulf Region — where in the four hardest-hit Louisiana parishes, for example, almost 25 percent of students were enrolled in private and Catholic schools — while preserving the vital oversight role of local public school systems in disbursing funds to public school students now seeking education elsewhere.
The long-term work of rebuilding school systems in the hurricane-affected areas of the United States will be long and difficult. But the devastation also holds immense possibility for a future with better schools and stronger communities. We believe reconstruction will be more effective if leaders collaborate with stakeholders to consider and apply the international lessons that we have outlined here. At a time when many are looking inward for answers as to why things went so wrong in the Gulf Region, the international community’s example in dealing with education in situations of displacement gives us an opportunity to look outward for concrete examples of what can go right.