[News] Fighting for the Right to Learn in New Orleans
news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Aug 6 15:28:01 EDT 2007
August 6, 2007
A Special Report on Katrina & Education
Experimenting on Someone Else's Children
Fighting for the Right to Learn in New Orleans
By BILL QUIGLEY
Of all the civil rights for which the world has
struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right
to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental
freedom to learn
has been bought by bitter
sacrifice. And whatever we may think of the
curtailment of other civil rights, we should
fight to the last ditch to keep open the right to learn.
W.E.B. DuBois, The Freedom to Learn. (1949)
"Education is the property of no one. It belongs
to the people as a whole. And if education is not
given to the people, they will have to take it."
""We wanted charter schools to open and take the
majority of the students. That didn't happen, and
now we have the responsibility of educating the 'leftover' children."
Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary School Member (2007)
There is a massive experiment being performed on
thousands of primarily African American children
in New Orleans. No one asked the permission of
the children. No one asked permission of their
parents. This experiment involves a fight for the education of children.
This is the experiment.
The First Half
Half of the nearly 30,000 children expected to
enroll in the fall of 2007 in New Orleans public
schools have been enrolled in special public
schools, most called charter schools. These
schools have been given tens of millions of
dollars by the federal government in extra money,
over and above their regular state and local
money, to set up and operate. These special
public schools are not open to every child and do
not allow every student who wants to attend to
enroll. Some charter schools have special
selective academic criteria which allow them to
exclude children in need of special academic
help. Other charter schools have special
admission policies and student and parental
requirements which effectively screen out many children.
The children in this half of the experiment are
taught by accredited teachers in manageable sized
classes. There are no overcrowded classes because
these charter schools have enrollment caps which
allow them to turn away students. These schools
also educate far fewer students with academic or
emotional disabilities. Children in charter
schools are in better facilities than the other half of the children.
These schools are getting special grants from
Laura Bush to rebuild their libraries and grants
from other foundations to help them educate.
These schools do educate some white children
along with African American children. These are
public schools, but they are not available to all the public school students.
The Other Half
The other half of public school students, over
ten thousand children, have been assigned to a
one year old experiment in public education run
by the State of Louisiana called the Recovery
School District (RSD) program. The education
these children receive will be compared to the
education received by the first half in the
charter schools. These children are effectively
what is called the control group of an
experiment those against whom the others will be evaluated.
The RSD schools have not been given millions of
extra federal dollars to operate. The new RSD has
inexperienced leadership. Many critical vacancies
exist in their already insufficient district-wide
staff. Many of the teachers are uncertified. In
fact, the RSD schools do not yet have enough
teachers, even counting the uncertified, to start
school in the fall of 2007. Some of the RSD
school buildings scheduled to be used for the
fall of 2007 have not yet been built.
In the first year of this experiment, the RSD had
one security guard for every 37 students.
Students at John McDonough High said their RSD
school, which employed more guards than teachers,
had a prison atmosphere. In some schools,
children spent long stretches of their school
days in the gymnasium waiting for teachers to show up to teach them.
There is little academic or emotional counseling
in the RSD schools. Children with special needs
suffer from lack of qualified staff. College prep
math and science classes and language immersion
are rarely offered. Class rooms keep filling up
as new children return back to New Orleans and are assigned to RSD schools.
Many of the RSD schools do not have working
kitchens or water fountains. Bathroom facilities
are scandalous teachers at one school report
there are two bathrooms for the entire school,
one for all the male students, faculty and staff
and another for all the females in the building.
Danatus King, of the NAACP in New Orleans, said
What happened last year was a tragedy. Many of
the citys children were denied an education last
year because of a failure to plan on the part of the RSD.
Hardly any white children attend this half of the school experiment.
These are the public schools available to the
rest of the public school students.
Who Started This Experiment
After Katrina, groups in New Orleans, Baton Rouge
and Washington DC saw an opportunity to radically
restructure public education in New Orleans and
turn many public schools into publicly funded
charter schools. Charter schools are publicly
funded schools that have far more freedom to
select the children they admit, more freedom in
the way they operate, and more freedom in the hiring and firing of teachers.
This experiment has been controversial from the beginning.
Some people are very critical. According to a
recent report on this experiment by New Orleans
teachers, right after Katrina a well-organized
and well-financed national network of charter
school advocates hastened the conversion of
public schools by waiving previous requirements.
Without input from parents or teachers, these
folks engaged in what the teachers called a
massive takeover experiment with the children of
New Orleans at a time when most parents and
students were widely dispersed in other parishes
and states. See
EXPERIENCE NECESSARY: How the New Orleans
Takeover Experiment Devalues Experienced
Teachers, June 2007, (hereafter New Orleans Teachers Report).
Supporters like Governor Blanco hailed the
experiment as "an opportunity to do something
incredible." Others agreed. "We are using this as
an opportunity to take what was one of the worst
school systems around and create one of the best
and most competitive school systems in America,"
said Walter Isaacson, vice chairman of the
Louisiana Recovery Authority. "This is an
unprecedented opportunity to rebuild the school
system the way it should be," says Scott Cowen,
president of Tulane University. The Tulane Scott
Cowen Institute and other supporters have
authored their own report on the experiment,
OF PUBLIC EDUCATION IN NEW ORLEANS, June 2007, (hereafter the Cowen Report).
How Government Created This Experiment
This experiment was started and approved while
students and parents were not around to
participate in the decision. Before Katrina, the
process of creating a charter school was legally
required to first have the approval of parents
and teachers. Supporters of this experiment, many
if not most of who do not have children in public
schools, repeatedly argue that this experiment
creates choice for at least half the parents
and students. The irony is that few parents had
any choice at all in creating the experiment involving their children.
The very first public school converted to a
charter was done on September 15, 2005, while
almost all the city remained closed to residents.
The school board did not even hold the meeting in New Orleans.
While President Bush may have been slow to react
in other areas after the storm, he made a bold
push right after Katrina to help convert public schools to charters.
On September 30, 2005, the U.S. Department of
Education pledged $20.9 million to Louisiana for
post-Katrina charter schools. The federal
government offered no comparable funding to
reestablish traditional neighborhood or district schools.
In early October 2005, Governor Blanco issued an
executive order which waived state laws which
required faculty and parent approval to convert a
regular public school to a charter school. The
Orleans School Board then used this waiver to
convert all 13 schools in the less-flooded
Algiers community of New Orleans to charter
schools without parent or teacher approval.
Then all four thousand public school teachers in
New Orleans, members of the largest union in
Louisiana, were fired along with support staff.
The rest of the takeover was accomplished in
November 2005 under new rules enacted by the
Louisiana legislature. All this while most of the
families of public school students remained
displaced, many hundreds of miles away.
The New Orleans Teachers Report complained that
Proponents of the New Orleans takeover
experiment created the false impression that the
hurricane forced the state takeover or that a
fair and uniform accountability system led to the states action.
In fact, the state changed the rules and targeted
New Orleans schools in an attempt to convert all
schools to charter status, not just the failing
ones. Most charter schools are pre-existing
schools that were converted to charter status.
After the mass charter school conversions in the
three months following Katrina, the
authorized only three more charters
12 schools, the operation of all but three have
been given to providers who are based out of state.
Many foundations are contributing large sums of money to the experiment.
For example, the Laura Bush Foundation has
generously donated millions of dollars to rebuild
school libraries in schools along the gulf coast.
Her foundation has given tens of thousands of
dollars in grants to rebuild the libraries of 13
schools in New Orleans 8 of which are charter
schools and 5 are private catholic schools. Not
one is a RSD regular public school.
How the Experiment Actually Operates
With a few exceptions, the state of Louisiana
essentially now controls the public school system
in New Orleans. There is little local control.
The state has subcontracted much of the work of
education to willing charter schools.
Of the public schools operating at the end of the
2006-2007 academic year, educating 57 percent of
public school students, were charters.
This makes New Orleans the urban district with by
far the highest proportion of publicly funded
charter schools in the nation. Dayton Ohio has
the second highest concentration of charter
schools involving 30% of its 17,000 students.
This experiment has resulted in a clearly defined
two-tier public school system.
The top tier is made up of the best public and
charter public schools, which most children
cannot get into, and a number of new and
promising charter public schools that are
available for the industrious and determined
parents of children who do not have academic or emotional disabilities.
The second tier is for the rest of the children.
Their education is assigned to the RSD (some are
already calling it The Rest of the School District).
The top half of the schools are the point of this
experiment in public charter schools. National
charter school advocacy groups are pointing to
New Orleans as the experiment which will
demonstrate that publicly funded charter schools
are superior to public schools.
However, the top half could not work without the
bottom half. If the schools in the top half had
to accept the students assigned to the second
tier schools, the results of the experiment would
obviously turn out quite differently. As the
experiment is structured, students in the bottom
half schools will be very useful to compare with
the top half to see how well this works.
While some sympathize with the children in the
bottom half, little has been done to assist those in the RSD schools.
How the Top Half Operates
Start with the money. Charter schools have more of it than the RSD schools.
Each charter school is given a share of the
federal $20.9 million dollar grant. None of that
money is available to non-charter public schools.
As the Cowen report notes, charter public schools
also have advantages other than just financial
ones over other the rest of the public schools.
Though funded by tax dollars, charters are
granted greater autonomy over staffing budgeting
and curriculum than regular public schools.
Charters have better facilities, fewer problems
attracting staff and can keep school class size small.
Charters are allowed to impose enrollment caps.
These caps allow them to turn down additional
students who seek to enroll. This keeps pupil
teacher ratios down and class sizes small a
universally recognized key to academic achievement.
Some of the top tier public schools have explicit
selective enrollment policies which screen out
children with academic problems. Most of the
remaining charters are technically supposed to be
open enrollment schools but require
pre-application essays, parental-involvement
requirements and specific behavior contracts
allowing these charter schools the flexibility to
manage their incoming classes, rather than
having to accept every student who applies. At
nine schools, traditional public school
transportation is not even provided, further limiting the choices.
A look at Algiers charter school association
(ACSA) website illustrates how schools in the top half operate.
Financially, the ACSA budget reports expenditures
of $27 million in 2006-2007, leaving an apparent
surplus of $11 million. For 2005-2006, the ACSA
was given $2.5 million from Orleans Parish School
Board ($500 per student over and above their
regular funding), a $6 million federal charter
school grant, plus the state minimum foundation funds.
That is not all the extra money. The ACSA has
also received several major grants. For example,
in June of 2007, the ACSA was awarded a special
$999,000 federal grant to help improve learning
in American history. In March, 2007, Baptist
Community Ministries announced a $4.2 million
grant to create a network among the charter schools.
The ACSA website includes their application
process, which specifically spells out that
student applicants will NOT be considered on a
first come first serve basis. Decisions on
whether an applicant is allowed to attend will be
based on several factors, including scores on
state examinations and whether applicant has ever
received any special education services for a
learning disability or emotional disturbance.
Many of the other charter schools also benefit
from special funds and special admissions
policies. One of the most selective public
charter schools, Lusher charter school, received
millions extra in special grants from Tulane
University, FEMA, the State of Louisiana, a
German Foundation which gave $1.1 million to
renovate the gymnasium, and other foundations.
Wouldnt every returning student like to enroll in one of these schools?
Students returning to New Orleans who might seek
to enroll in one of the top half schools are
likely to be disappointed as the deadline for
enrollment at most of the charter schools has
already passed. For example, applications to
enroll in Lusher charter for this fall were due December 15, 2006.
How the Rest of the School District Operates
By law, the RSD is required to accept any student
who shows up and is prohibited from having any selective admissions policy.
From the beginning, Louisiana officials charged
with making policy and operating the RSD
complained that they were being left with
educating the leftover children after the
charters and the selective schools took the
children with the best academic scores and best parental involvement.
Damon Hewitt, a civil rights attorney with the
NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and a
New Orleans native, discovered the reference to
leftovers in an email sent by one of
Louisianas top education policy makers. The
email is from Louisiana Board of Elementary and
Secondary Education (BESE) member Glenny Lee
Buquet. She wrote in an internal BESE e-mail in
January 2007, obtained by Hewitt in a federal
case, We wanted charter schools to open and take
the majority of the students. That didn't happen,
and now we have the responsibility of educating the 'leftover' children."
Who are the leftover children in the RSD? Hewitt
again: The students served by the RSD are
typically those who could not get into any of the
fancy charter or selective admissions schools.
They are the average New Orleans students -
talented, creative and bright, but locked in poverty and out of opportunity.
The average New Orleanian child is our child.
These children are the children of our sisters
and brothers and cousins and coworkers. Yet they
are categorized as, and treated like, something
quite different by people in charge of public education.
The RSD has not been up to the job of educating
New Orleans children because, from day one and
continuing until today, it lacked the appropriate
number and quality of people and the expertise to
run a big urban school system.
One of the best illustrations of the problems of
the RSD is their refusal to admit hundreds of
returning New Orleans children to public schools
in January of 2007. Instead, the RSD put these
kids on a waiting list. Public outcry and two
federal lawsuits forced a quick reversal and the
kids were put into RSD schools.
At the same time as the RSD put kids on a waiting
list, Thousands of empty seats and dozens of
empty classrooms could be found in charter
schools or in the citys selective or
discretionary-admissions public schools the New
Orleans Teachers Report points out.
So why was there a problem? There was space for
these kids in the charter public schools. But
because the public charter schools are allowed to
cap their enrollment they did not have to admit
any new children. In reality, the main reason
there was a problem was not space, but a shortage
of teachers willing to work for the RSD.
Is it any surprise that the disorganized and
under-staffed RSD was having problems finding teachers for their schools?
The New Orleans teachers report indicate many
veteran teachers remain furious at the State of
Louisiana and its RSD because they were fired and
their right to collective bargaining was
terminated. Teachers point out that veteran
teachers hired in adjoining districts continue to
enjoy collective bargaining along with the rest
of the teachers. But not in New Orleans.
Uncertified teachers were widespread in RSD schools.
In fact, certified teachers from around the
country who wanted to help by teaching in New
Orleans were directed by the Teach for NOLA
recruitment website to charter schools.
Uncertified teachers were directed to the RSD.
The RSD was still 500 teachers short at the time
this article was written. In July of 2007, the
RSD ran a $400,000 national campaign to try to
hire an additional 500 teachers to start in the
fall. The RSD is offering up $17,300 in
relocation and other incentives to try to get
teachers into the system. If there are any
teachers reading this, please come and help the
children in the RSD out you are desperately needed!
As of July, the RSD was also working furiously to
erect temporary modular buildings to house
children when school starts in the fall.
Meanwhile, neighboring St. Bernard Parish opened
school in temporary school buildings two months
after Katrina nearly two years ago.
An indication of the fragmentation of the system
are the many starting dates for New Orleans
public schools. Some charter schools will start
August 6, another on the 8th. Five start August
14, others in mid to late August. The two dozen
or so RSD schools will open September 4 in part
to give more time to build new schools to open and to recruit teachers.
During 2006-2007 school security became a top
issue. Consider the experiment of placing
thousands of recently traumatized and frequently
displaced children into schools without enough
teachers or staff or facilities. Consider also
that those who are charged with supervising the
schools are inexperienced and understaffed as
well. The logical outcome of such an experiment is insecurity.
The RSD spent $20 million on security. They had
one security guard for every 37 students in
2006-2007, a rate nine times higher than the old
public school security system. At one point there
were 35 guards at RSD John McDonough Senior High
plus two off-duty police officers. Thirty two
guards started at another school in the fall.
This situation quickly prompted the Fyre Youth
Squad, a group of high school students in New
Orleans, to challenge the prison atmosphere at
John McDonough High. There were more security
guards than teachers at their school.
What impact does this have on education of
children? Research shows that students feel more
tense when they encounter security guards at
every turn in a school, said Monique Dixon, a
senior attorney at the Advancement Project, a
Washington, D.C. civil rights organization that
works with community groups on issues such as
school discipline. "It becomes more of a prison
on some levels where people feel they are being
watched constantly instead of feeling protected,"
she said. "It creates a police state."
The financial implications of spending money this
way are also troubling. While New Orleans spent
$20 million on private security for around 50
schools, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported
that the Philadelphia public school security
budget for more than 260 schools was about $47
million, which included a 450-member independent
police force, 150 auxiliary officers, and
partnerships with more than 200 community
members. In Detroit, the budget this fiscal year
for the 400-member independent police force that
protects the public schools, which has more than
100,000 students and more than 200 schools, was about $16 million.
Controlling students sometimes appeared to take
priority over educating students.
Damon Hewitt points out that the line between
criminal justice policy and education got much
blurrier over the past year and a half, as local
schools have resorted to increasingly punitive
approaches to school discipline. Relying more on
police officers than community engagement, school
officials' harsh responses to challenging
behavior mirror public fear and sentiment about
crime in the city. As a result, more children end
up being suspended, expelled and arrested and
sent to juvenile court. This phenomenon, which
some call the School-to-Prison Pipeline, is
literally robbing New Orleans of its most valuable asset - people.
Some say that children in New Orleans are
suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,
continues Hewitt. But they are really suffering
from the impact of Continuing Trauma - trauma
that plays itself out every day. To the extent
that children do act out present challenging
behavior in schools, a lot of it has to do with
both this continuing trauma and unmet educational
needs, especially for those students in need of
special education and related services. We cannot
suspend, expel and arrest our way out of this
problem. In fact, those harsh responses only make
things worse by depriving young people of
much-needed educational opportunity.
The academic results measured by standardized
test scores given in spring 2007 at the RSD
schools were predictably low. Nearly half the
students failed in most 4th and 8th grade
categories. Two-thirds of high school students
failed in the Louisiana Educational Assessment
Program (LEAP) and Graduate Exit Exam (GEE). The
selective public schools had only an 18 percent
failure rate on the GEE. LEAP scores for
individual schools reported during the summer
show what most expected, charter schools test better than RSD schools.
One current public school teacher, name withheld
for reasons that will be obvious, was not hopeful.
The public schools are totally fragmented. The
struggles are still the same. Students still have
difficult situations at home, some are still in
trailers or living with too many people in one small home.
Schools still lack books and materials, which I
don't understand. After Katrina there were so
many offers of help, both physical and monetary.
I don't think that the people in charge knew what
to do to organize a decent response to the offers.
The RSD schools lack enough qualified and
experienced teachers. The state Department of
Education is well intentioned but they are barely
dealing with the day to day issues and they still
need to open more schools as people come back to the city.
Yes, it sounds dismal. I don't see any big
changes for next year. I think many of the
charter schools have promise. The charters
usually have a committed administration and staff
and frequently a committed parent body. That is the secret to success.
Leigh Dingerson of the Center for Community
Change in Washington DC, who has been researching
the New Orleans schools after Katrina, sums up
the problems with the New Orleans experiment.
In the 18 months since Hurricane Katrina, the
infrastructure of the New Orleans public schools
has been systematically dismantled and a new
tangle of independently operated educational
experiments has been erected in its place. This
new structure has taken away community control
and community ownership of all but a handful of
schools. Instead, independent charter management
organizations - virtually all from outside the
state - are now running 60 percent of New Orleans schools.
There are no more neighborhood boundaries. In a
market-based model, parents are considered
customers. And theyre supposed to choose
where to send their kids to school. But since
every one of the charter schools was filled to
capacity, hundreds of parents had no choice at all for their kids.
Hundreds of kids with disabilities (who are
often turned away from charter schools) are being
placed in the under-resourced and over-burdened
state-run Recovery School District. Its their only choice.
This Balkanized school system is not closing a gap. Its opening a chasm.
The Cowen Report survey of the community agrees
with much of the Digerson analysis finding that
for many in the community, the RSD-operated
schools are viewed as an unofficial dumping
ground for students with behavioral or academic challenges.
All indicators conclude that the RSD overall has
done a poor job educating all the thousands of
children in their half of the experiment,
especially those with disabilities, because of
RSDs own lack of expertise and experienced staff
and because the schools they supervise lack the
necessary teachers, support staff, and resources.
Possible Positive Results of this Experiment
Given the disastrous start to this experiment, at
least for half the children in public schools in
New Orleans, are there any positive results possible?
Supporters of the experiment rightfully point out
the dismal state of public education in New
Orleans prior to Katrina. The public school
system had a few elite schools that had some
racial mixing in their student body, while most
of the rest of the schools were underperforming
even by Louisiana standards. Outside of the elite
schools, the population of the student body at
almost all schools was nearly one hundred percent African-American.
Teachers valued teaching in the elite public
schools because they had less turnover, students
with better test scores, solid parental
involvement and more access to additional
resources. There was widespread corruption
resulting in over 20 convictions of school board
officials or employees. While the national
average term for a public school system
superintendent was three years, from 1998 to 2005
the New Orleans average was 11 months.
At this point in the experiment, it is fair to
conclude that the New Orleans public schools are
still divided into some racially mixed elite and
charter schools, while the other half of the
schools must be classified as underperforming and
nearly one hundred percent African-American.
On the other hand, supporters hope that this
experiment will show the way to improve public
education. It very likely will, at least for the
half of the children fortunate enough to get into the top tier schools.
Politically, the real winners in this experiment
are almost guaranteed to be those who back the idea of charter schools.
The New Orleans experiment offers tremendous
opportunities for backers of charter schools. Up
to now, charter schools have not proven superior
to regular public schools. For example, in a 2004
of the Public Charter Schools Program, the U.S.
Department of Education study of charter schools
in five states found charter schools were
somewhat less likely than traditional public
schools to meet state performance standards -
but cautioned that the study was unable to
determine whether traditional public schools are
more effective than charters.
But in New Orleans, where the best public schools
have been converted into charters and the kids
most in need of good schools have been
systematically excluded from the top half of the
public schools and placed into a dysfunctional
system the charter schools in the upper half
are guaranteed to demonstrate better educational
outcomes than what education officials call the leftover public schools.
If charter schools cannot prove themselves
superior with this New Orleans deck stacked in
their favor, they should quit and go home.
Apart from charter school backers are there
others who are likely to see positive outcomes?
A real positive outcome would be if the
experiment could translate the advantages of the
top half of the selective schools into success
for the rest of the public school children as
well. There is little evidence of that happening at this time.
The creators of this experiment acknowledge that
a large percentage of the children are being left
out. "The bottom line is we are very hopeful
about this system of school models that is
emerging, and we are showing a lot of progress,"
said Tulane University President Scott S. Cowen.
"But we still have challenges to overcome to fulfill that vision."
Negative Possibilities of This Experiment
Twice as many people in New Orleans think the
public school system is worse now than those who
think it is better, according to the Cowen Report.
Tracie Washington, civil rights and education
attorney and head of the new Louisiana Justice
Institute, points out the differences in the
schools that she has heard about from hundreds of families.
Think about the fact that we had parents who had
the misfortune of sending their children to
schools in two different systems -- RSD and a
charter. Now if your daughter attended Lusher
charter or Audubon charter, they always had hot
meals, clean toilets, books, library, certified
teachers, after school activities, AND NO ARMED
GUARDS AT THE SCHOOL SITE. Your son had the
misfortune of attending RSD schools like Raboin
High School, or Clark, or John McDonogh. No
books, cold food, essentially an armed
encampment. Same family same mom and dad, same
home environment; but the daughter is treated
like a student and the son is treated like an
inmate at the State Penitentiary at Angola.
Actually, they are treated better at Angola
because there's a library and hot food is served!
While the Cowen Report underscores the importance
of saving the RSD, there has been no determined
or comprehensive community or political attempt
to rescue the RSD nor the thousands of children assigned to it.
There is a cruel point in this experiment.
Unfortunately, if the RSD continues to do poorly,
that makes the selective charter schools appear
even more successful. Thus the worse the RSD
performs, the better the charters look. Those who
have access to the top half will push ahead,
those who do not will fall further behind.
Danatus King of the New Orleans NAACP says many
think the public education system is
intentionally designed by those with economic
power to keep other peoples children
under-educated. If you keep them uneducated, you
can control them easier. There is a power
structure in New Orleans that has existed for
hundreds of years. They dont want to see it
changed because if its changed then it is going
to hit them in their pockets. It is going to be
hard to keep those hotel and restaurant workers
from unionizing and demanding more money and
better working conditions. It is going to be more
difficult to attract folks to that industry when
they are well educated and have other
opportunities. If you keep them uneducated, you can control them easier.
National critics like the Center for Community
Change complain The Bush Administration was
instrumental in creating this new chasm between
the haves and the have nots in New Orleans.
Rather than create the world-class public schools
that all New Orleans kids have deserved for so
long, the Bush Administration invested in an
ideological experiment to make a
pro-privatization, anti-public education statement.
In a school system based on free market
principles, schools become individual contestants
for the best teachers, for the best students,
for the most resources, and of course
best test scores. They can only do this because
they are not required to provide access to every
student within their community.
There must be, backing up every large scale
charter system, the schools for the children
are un-chosen by charter schools.
The very existence of charter schools in New
Orleans, at this point, is dependent on the
availability of a universal access network of
schools alongside it. And those schools, the
schools with the state run Recovery School
District, are struggling with more than their
share of kids with disabilities and less than
their share of teachers and resources. To win, there must be losers.
Thus, the failures of the RSD will make
supporters of charter and other restrictive
admission schools appear even more successful. So
where in this experiment is the incentive to make
sure that the half of the kids left out have a
fighting chance for a decent education?
The Future of the Experiment
Where does the experiment go from here? The RSD
is supposed to return control of the public
schools to local control after five years.
Charter schools are supposed to only be chartered
for five years. What happens in the next five
years? No one knows. Really. No one knows. And if
no one knows, then the likelihood of the left
behind continuing to be left behind is extremely high.
Parents do not need five years. They already know
which half of the experiment they want their
children to participate in. Will the powers who
created this experiment dedicate what is left of
their five years to try to create a system where
ALL children have choices of quality education,
or will the underserved half of the schools
remain as a control group for the privileged schools?
The Cowen Report, overall supportive and hopeful
for the experiment, admits "There is no
system-wide responsibility, accountability,
vision or leadership to guide the transformation
of all public schools for all New Orleans
students," and no "unified, widely-endorsed
vision or plan" exists to chart transformation of
the entire public school system.
Will race and economic segregation increase or
decrease as a result of this experiment?
Tracie Washington, speaking both as a civil
rights attorney and parent, thinks any future
success for all children will only come through serious struggle.
What we need - to repair the New Orleans Public
Schools systems (plural) and, indeed, the public
hospital, the public housing, the criminal
justice system, and our system of worker rights -
is vision, opportunity, and resolve.
Our vision must embrace the entire community in
the plans to rebuild a state of the art school
system. White folks don't send their children to
public schools, so stop going to them for advice.
Our opportunity requires that those in power
release the resources for our community to
fulfill its vision for public schools.
And we need to demonstrate resolve. Resolve is
what the community must stand together with as we
demand the right to an education for all our
children. We have to resolve that we will fight,
we will scream, we will holla, we will call out
your family, we will stop the economic engine of
this entire city from running (yes, the entire
city), until our children are given a fighting chance for a decent education.
The New Orleans Teachers Report insists that the
dual and unequal systems of schools in the city
which intensify the educational disparities that
existed before Katrina must cease. They call on
policymakers to provide more physical classroom
space and educational materials for every
student, and provide the best qualified teachers
possible for every child. Families must be able
to send their children to a neighborhood school
charter or not that is staffed by qualified,
mostly experienced teachers. Finally they ask
that teachers and their unions be made full
partners in the rebuilding and revitalization effort.
The Cowen Reports recommendations seems to start
modestly, but perhaps not. Their first
recommendation? Make sure everyone can get into a
public school this year. Other suggestions
include: making sure all students have access to
diverse high-quality options; limiting enrollment
barriers and open access schools in every
neighborhood; fair distribution of resources to
all schools; strengthen the RSD and create a
process to return public schools to local
control; get high quality principals, teachers
and staff; support excellence at all schools; and
create short and long-term plans for action.
Two huge groups of kids are notably missing from
all the official and unofficial plans for the
future of the experiment the newly arrived
children of thousands of Latino workers, and much
larger group the tens of thousands of those
still displaced who want to return. While there
is little current accurate information on either
of these groups of children, they are absolutely
at risk in this experiment. And they are unjustly
being left out of public policy debates about the
future of public education in New Orleans.
Signs of Hope
Wherever there is injustice, there are also signs
of hope usually in those who are standing up
despite the injustices and struggling, despite the odds, for what is fair.
Education activists and organizers, including
youth, have really gotten busy since Katrina,
Damon Hewitt points out. Groups ranging from the
Douglass Community Coalition and to the Downtown
Neighborhood Improvement Association's Education
Committee and the FYRE Youth Squad have stepped
up their responses to educational inequity,
despite having precious little in the way of
resources to do the work. Their demands for
equity and justice have been loud and clearly
articulated. And there are some signs that their
efforts are starting to bear fruit in the
creation of after school programs and the like.
Community members who have long advocated for
best practices and community-centered approaches
to issues like school discipline may finally be
starting to have a real say in how policies are crafted and implemented.
Hundreds of NAACP members and supporters marched
at the Louisiana Capitol to protest against
injustices in public education. The NAACP is also
considering economic boycotts as a tool to raise
awareness of the problems facing public schools.
Some see hope in the fact that there is a new
Louisiana Superintendent of Education and a new
New Orleans School Superintendent. Will either or
both be able to help create some fairness and
equality and competency where little exists? One
can hope. Tracie Washington waits. I am pleased
with the efforts being made by the new
administrators. But really at this time we are
still simply repairing damage wrought over the
last two years. To be sure, the new people at the
top did not create this mess. However, there are
hundreds of bureaucrats and the members of the
Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary
Education who sat and watched as our children
suffered after Katrina. I will not forgive them for their acts of cowardice.
One concrete sign of hope is the New Orleans
Parents Guide to Public Schools a step by step
handbook on how to select the right school for
children. Aesha Rasheed of New Orleans Network is
the editor of the handbook. The 95 page book
includes a list of all public schools open in New
Orleans as well as a map that shows where they
are, followed by information pages on each school
that shows the address, a photograph of the
building, the grades it serves, its mission
statement, the size of the student population,
how to register, whether there are special
requirements for enrollment, the type of
transportation provided, what health and child
care services are available, any special programs
and extracurricular activities. While one could
hope that it would not take outsiders to create a
description of the schools in the system, the
guide is helpful for parents trying to navigate
the current maze. See
One of the greatest hopes for change is the
students themselves. Students are speaking out
and demanding changes in the fragmented
disorganized public schools. They are telling
their stories locally and across the nation
Jade Fleury, a New Orleans public school student,
challenged a group of educators in Washington DC
recently. Bring us together to make a change. We
should be able to collectively put our ideas
together to help one another. BRING US TOGETHER!
Why are we developing more and more separate
schools and not more neighborhood schools that
the whole diversity of young people in the neighborhood can attend?
The Experiment and the Fight for the Right to Learn Continue
Our community understands there is an experiment
going on. Everyone may not totally understand how
this experiment got started, but the results are obvious and troubling.
The nation is watching. Charter school advocates
are working furiously to make their half of the
experiment a success. Those committed to the
education of rest of the children had better be
working as hard. What is happening in New Orleans
is an experiment about what people hope will
happen to communities across the nation.
Jim Randels, a 20 year veteran teacher in the
N.O. public schools, posed the challenge to those
who seek to remake public education today My
need as a teacher is to see someone who will come
in and do a charter that works within the
attendance boundaries of an urban neighborhood.
Demonstrate to us that innovation can happen in a
school thats like the majority of public schools
in urban settings. Will you commit to work in an
attendance boundary? Will you commit to working
with the same amount of resources that all of us work with?
The public school system is a reflection of what
is occurring in all our public systems
post-Katrina. Public healthcare and public
housing are going the same way. Those with the
economic and political power are re-making the
public systems with public funds the way they
want them to operate. Naomi Klein calls this
disaster capitalism. Those with the money see
disaster as opportunity to reshape and profit formerly public systems.
Those at the top have effectively privatized the
best public schools and erected barriers to keep others out.
But, the people excluded are fighting for a voice
in this experiment of choice.
These fighters recognize that false reformers are
always willing to experiment on someone elses children.
The truest indication of the fairness of this
experiment is that, so far, not one of the
supporters of this experiment have demonstrated a
willingness to send their own children to a RSD
school. So, the experiment, and the fight, continue.
Until the day dawns when the educational rights
of all the leftover children will be treated as
just as important as the educational rights of
our own children, the fight for the right to learn will continue.
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law
professor at Loyola University New Orleans. He
can be reached at <mailto:quigley at loyno.edu>quigley at loyno.edu
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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