Washington (CNN) - Education Secretary Arne Duncan has spent the last couple of days backpedaling from comments he made Sunday suggesting Hurricane Katrina was good for New Orleans' failing schools. But, while he's apologizing for poor word choice, his comments echo a truth spoken by many in New Orleans.
"It was a dumb thing to say and I apologize," Duncan told CNN Tuesday.
In a Sunday broadcast of TV One's Washington Watch with Roland Martin, Duncan was asked about the progress New Orleans schools have made since Katrina hit in 2005.
"This is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest," Duncan replied. "I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that 'we have to do better.'"
Excerpts of the interview were released by the show on Friday. Shortly afterwards, numerous networks and newspapers picked them up, sparking the controversy that continued once the remarks were broadcast. Duncan called New Orleans' Mayor Ray Nagin Friday evening to explain what he meant, according to his office.
Duncan told CNN Tuesday he regretted what he said but insists the storm has motivated the city to reinvest in its children like never before.
"I said it poorly. And my point was very simple. Hurricane Katrina was a devastating, devastating tragedy. The progress we've seen subsequent to that has been absolutely remarkable. The teachers, the principals there are working so incredibly hard," he said.
"Almost all the students missed three months, four months, six months," he continued. "I talked to students who missed more than a year off school and yet they came back. And in a short amount of time, four years they came back, subsequent to the devastating tragedy, amazing progress. And I just tip my hat to the hard work there. I was simply trying to point out how impressed I am, the remarkable commitment and the sense of urgency."
Several Louisiana officials defended Duncan's remarks. Louisiana's Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek said, "I know it's a strong statement, but it's actually quite accurate. It was a pathetic system before the storm."
Louisiana's superintendent of the Recovery School District Paul Vallas said, "local people have said that time and time again...."
Duncan has made several trips to New Orleans since becoming Education Secretary one year ago, and his most recent on October 15.
Monday the President released his proposed 2011 Budget, allocating a 7.5 percent increase ($4 billion) in Federal education spending. Duncan is using Federal dollars to promote state and local school systems to reform. He is also overhauling former President Bush's "Elementary and Secondary Education Act" better known as the "No Child Left Behind Act."