Former President George W. Bush arrived at Warren Easton Charter High School on Friday with glowing praise for the charter school movement that has transformed public education in New Orleans in the past decade.
“Isn’t it amazing?” Bush said. “The storm nearly destroys New Orleans, and yet now New Orleans is the beacon for school reform.”
In remarks to students and local officials, Bush highlighted rising test scores and graduation rates and praised school leaders for “slicing through red tape” and giving parents a choice of schools in the years after Hurricane Katrina.
“Today, we celebrate the resurgence of New Orleans schools and the resilience of a great American city, whose levees gave out but whose people never gave up,” he said.
Bush did not directly address his administration’s failures in the response to the 2005 storm, and he did not stay for questions from reporters afterward.
He did, however, make a point of mentioning the more than 30,000 people who were rescued by members of the U.S. military when federal assistance finally arrived.
Bush also praised the city’s resilience. Citing a Cowen Institute report that showed “dramatic improvement” in the city’s public schools, which are almost entirely charters, Bush praised teachers, administrators and school officials for setting high expectations and meeting them.
He singled out Warren Easton for graduating 100 percent of its students in the past five years.
“Results at these schools have been extraordinary,” he said.
Warren Easton, located on Canal Street in Mid-City, also was the site of Bush’s visit on the first anniversary of Katrina. The school is one of 46 in the city that received funds from a foundation set up by his wife, Laura Bush, to help schools purchase books for their libraries.
Laura Bush described how her foundation was preparing to give out its last awards when the disaster occurred, and how it pivoted into the Gulf Coast School Library Initiative to provide new grants for libraries devastated by the storm and flooding. She contrasted the damage to Warren Easton — including the destruction of 9,000 books — to the rebuilt and restocked school that stands there today.
“I’m thrilled that books are back on the shelves and back in the hands of children, where they belong,” she said.
The appearance was Bush’s only involvement in the local commemorations marking the 10th anniversary of the disaster, which was exacerbated by his administration’s slow and initially inadequate response. After the speech, he headed to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to participate in events there.
His visit was sandwiched between President Barack Obama’s speech in the Lower 9th Ward on Thursday and former President Bill Clinton’s expected appearance at the city’s official commemoration ceremony on Saturday.
While Bush remains, at best, a controversial figure in the city, there was little sign of opposition to his visit Friday.
A solitary sign-holding protester stood vigil outside the school as Bush mingled with students.
“I want to make sure that in all the glad-handing inside for former President Bush that we don’t forget the negligence and incompetence of the Bush administration after Hurricane Katrina,” said Aaron Grant, a 35-year-old hospitality worker. His sign read: “You’re early. Come back in a week” — a reference to how long it took for federal assistance to arrive after the storm.
Grant, who evacuated from St. Rose immediately before Katrina and now lives in New Orleans, said he was surprised others didn’t show up.
“I’m not forgetting,” he said. “I’m totally about the failed rescue effort — when people were dying in their attics — not the recovery effort.”
As the event was ending, three out-of-state demonstrators affiliated with Black Lives Matter showed up. They held up signs and chanted, “He let New Orleans drown.”
Other key officials who attended the event chose to focus on the recovery effort.
Kathleen Blanco, who was governor when Katrina hit, faulted Bush’s efforts during the first week after the storm, saying, “His image was hurt. FEMA was weak.”
But, Blanco said, she was glad Bush came to New Orleans on Friday.
“We ended up with billions of dollars that allowed us to start our renewal effort,” she said. “He committed to the levees being strengthened. He committed to what it took.”
Democratic political consultant James Carville and former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu also praised the long-term financial commitment to the recovery that started under the Bush administration.
Asked about the failed rescue effort, Carville said, “Everybody is aware of that. I don’t want to rehash that.”