While visiting an Atlanta shelter overflowing with homeless New Orleanians after Hurricane Katrina, then-Governor Kathleen Blanco encountered a mother who said she wouldn’t return to New Orleans until she could get her children into decent schools.

“We are going to do everything we can to make sure that happens,” Blanco remembers promising. “I am going back and we are going to work really hard. I am telling you it’s not going to be the way it was.”

She kept that promise.

Despite fierce opposition from most of New Orleans’ legislative delegation and political threats by some fellow Democrats, an embattled Blanco agreed with then-Superintendent of Education Cecil Picard that only a state takeover could save most of New Orleans’ schools.

As a result of their actions, a school system known for over two decades as the one of the worst in the nation has been transformed into a widely praised model of urban schooling.

In hindsight, Blanco’s successful effort to deal with the seemingly intractable problem of New Orleans’ inferior schools ranks as possibly the most far-reaching achievement of the years she served as Louisiana’s 54th and first female governor.

During her four-year tenure, 2004-’08, Blanco’s efforts for education were overshadowed by criticism of the state’s response to two hurricane disasters, especially her administration’s troubled Road Home Program, a federally funded program to help homeowners rebuild.

Even now, some historical accounts of Blanco’s years in office don’t even mention Act 35, the legislation she spearheaded in fall 2005 to authorize the takeover of 107 “failing” New Orleans schools.

But people who were key players in the tumultuous years before and after the state’s expansion of the state’s Recovery School District remember Blanco’s bold actions well.

 “She really put herself out there,” said former New Orleans Superintendent Anthony Amato in an interview a few months before he died last year.

 Amato, who returned to New Orleans later to head the International High School of New Orleans, also took a beating pre-Katrina, trying to straighten out an inept, even corrupt New Orleans school system that required a New York financial management firm to set the books straight.

Already fed up with the Orleans Parish School Board’s mishandling of $71 million in federal funds and dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, state Superintendent Picard urged Blanco to support a school takeover.

Though far more vulnerable to the political fallout of such an action than Picard, Blanco moved on the suggestion within days of meeting with him on the matter, says Carole Wallin, who was assistant superintendent at the time.

On the day that Blanco was scheduled to address the House Education Committee about legislation proposing a RSD expansion, Wallin says she was called to the governor’s suite for a conference. While she waited, Wallin remembers hearing angry shouts penetrating the thick walls that separated her from Blanco’s office. Not long after, she says, a parade of red-faced teachers union officials stomped out.

Wallin knew that the governor had been on the receiving end of the shouting when she met with Blanco immediately after their departure. “Ladies,” Wallin remembers the governor saying, “this better work. I have made a lot of my constituents unhappy.”

“Nobody realizes the tough stances she took,” Wallin says.

Looking back, Blanco says that as a Democrat she was keenly aware of the political risk she was taking. “I understood my base,” she says, “but you can’t make every legislative decision based on politics.

“I put a lot of political capital on the line for the children of New Orleans,” she says.

Now, only eight years later, New Orleans public schools continue to blossom. Before Katrina hit, Louisiana Department of Education figures show that 65 percent of New Orleans’ public school children attended a failing school by state standards. The DOE reported last year that only 5.7 percent attend a failing school today, a vast improvement. Moreover, 67 percent of the city’s students now attend “A,” “B” or “C” schools. In 2005, the DOE says, only 20 percent of the city’s students attended schools of that quality.

 “It’s not perfect,” Blanco admits, “but it’s so much better than what we had.”

Now 71, Blanco is enjoying a quieter life in Lafayette. She is writing an autobiography about her journey from school girl Kathleen Babineaux of New Iberia to the consummate politician who crashed through the discriminatory barriers that faced women of her generation.

Her political career happened by chance, or fate, depending on one’s worldview. Blanco calls it an “evolutionary” experience. An eight-member family posed financial constraints on her husband Raymond’s salary as an educator and football coach, so she decided to rejoin the workforce. She did some substitute teaching, but after spending years raising children and with small ones still at home, she craved adult interaction. She secured a district manager position with the U.S. Census Bureau. Her job was to manage the 1980 census for 11 parishes.

After the conclusion of the census, she searched for a business opportunity. State Farm Insurance appeared ready to grant her an agency of her own but partway into the process the dialog ended abruptly. “I got blanked out,” she recalls. The would-be governor refused to be brushed off without explanation, so she visited the office and demanded one. The typical male decision-maker of the time gave the typical answer:

“Being an agent is time-consuming,” Blanco recalls him saying, “You have six kids.”

“I have six reasons to get past it,” she retorted.

The census work brought public exposure and that led to suggestions that she seek elective office. Because the public distrusted politicians, she dismissed the idea at first, she says, because she valued her reputation, but when the state representative for her home district decided to retire “a light went on.”

Her husband also reminded her that she had six children, but Blanco prevailed in the disagreement and began raising money. She needed to raise $10,000 in a week. She started asking for support on a Wednesday, she says, and by Saturday, she’d raised $9,000.

Those four days of enthusiastic support paved the way for her to become the first female state representative from Lafayette and the first female member of the Public Service Commission. From there, she stepped up to Lieutenant Governor and then governor.

All went well until August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina turned much of the Gulf Coast into a disaster zone. The airwaves carried heart-breaking coverage of homelessness and violence, and a few days later Hurricane Rita slammed the Louisiana coast near the Texas border doubling the state’s troubles. The wreckage catapulted Blanco into the national spotlight. Under her leadership, she says the state eventually secured $29 billion in federal funding for hurricane recovery, but the stress and long workdays took their toll. Exhaustion led to a decision to not seek reelection in ’08, she says.

Even before those hellish days, when most of New Orleans’ schools took on up to eight feet of water, Blanco had focused a good deal of attention on education.

Her predecessor, Republican Governor Mike Foster, had tried to bring teacher salaries up to the Southern average, but Blanco was able to accomplish that feat with the surplus of revenue that rolled in during the recovery. She retained Picard, an ally from her legislative days, as education superintendent.

Blanco says she coaxed Paul Pastorek, a former chairman of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, to become state superintendent after Picard’s 2007 death, knowing that he was a “lightening rod” who would promote education reform. Soon after, U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu lobbied her to hire Paul Vallas, a school turnaround expert from Chicago, to take over the RSD. Vallas turned over many RSD direct-run schools to semi-autonomous charter operators, a trend that continued after he departed in ’11. Those early charters made such remarkable strides in student achievement that now over 90 percent of New Orleans’ students attend charter schools.

“I look back with a lot of pride,” Blanco says. “We did some extraordinary, powerful work and the results are showing.”

The Woman Behind the Change

New Orleans School Board President Phyllis Landrieu, left, Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Paul Vallas in 2007. Vallas was about to be introduced as the new superintendent of the Recovery School District of New Orleans.