[News] Fighting for the Right to Learn in New Orleans

Anti-Imperialist News 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


“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."

Che Guevara

""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 city’s 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 
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 state’s 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
.Of the 
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.

Wouldn’t 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 
Louisiana’s 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 city’s 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 they’re 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. It’s their only choice.”

“This Balkanized school system is not closing a gap. It’s 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 
RSD’s 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 people’s 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 don’t want to see it 
changed because if it’s 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
for the 
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 Report’s 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 that’s 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 else’s 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

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