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What Baton Rouge Means: From Alton Sterling and the Great Flood to School Reform

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In light of recent events, I am taking a brief break from my usual focus on urban education research and policy to discuss events in Baton Rouge that are relevant to schooling but have broader significance.

No city in the United States has been through more in the past two months than Baton Rouge: first, the awful death of Alton Sterling, then the outrageous police shootings, and now a 1,000-year storm that brought two feet of rain to the city and surrounding parishes. In what now somehow seems like a small issue, the state, with Baton Rouge as its capital, is also in the middle of its worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression.

Just about everyone at this point has a reason to be angry and depressed. If there is any place where it might seem like the sky is falling, it is here. In our religious and conservative state, people might think the end is near. 

Yet, this is not at all what's happened.

Instead, people are working together and pulling themselves up. Governor John Bel Edwards has been applauded from across the political spectrum for his calm, focused, thoughtful handling of all these crises. The Cajun Navy came out in force with their boats, along with the National Guard, to help rescue upwards of 40,000 people trapped in their homes. In driving up to Baton Rouge from New Orleans with my family to help with the clean up last Saturday morning, there was a literal traffic jam of people trying to get there to assist.

No one seems to notice whether help is coming from the government or their neighbors. No one seems to notice that it's blacks helping whites, whites helping blacks. No one cares about political affiliations right now. In New Orleans, people are "paying it forward," returning the favor that many in the flooded parishes provided after Hurricane Katrina.

I have no illusions that this is somehow a turning point in race and police relations or in how we work as a community. But this does show us one thing--that we can come together when we want to, especially when we have real leadership. Alton Sterling's family called for peace after their son's murder and decried the police shootings. John Bel Edwards did not duck the challenging issues of race and policing to avoid political controversy. The Cajun Navy didn't say, "Those people aren't like me." Even FEMA, widely and justifiably criticized for its slow and poor response to Katrina, is receiving plaudits from the local flooded communities. They were leaders, all of them. 

Naturally, the schools are one place where leadership is also sorely needed. A quarter-million students have already been affected. Some schools will not re-open until January. This is a major setback for those students, but here are some small ways you can help lead:

Now, if we could only package the tremendous and generous response to the flooding problems and channel that to school reform and other community debates. There is a big difference between a life-or-death crisis and the day-to-day challenges and conflicts of life. But if we can just remember what has happened in Baton Rouge and how people have responded, that might help remind us to put ourselves in other people's shoes and respond more respectfully when disagreements arise.

If Baton Rouge can deal with all these crises simultaneously, that's good news for them and an example for the rest of us.

Douglas N. Harris is Professor of Economics, the Schleider Foundation Chair in Public Education, and founding Director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (ERA-New Orleans).

You can follow him on Twitter.

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