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Justice for New Orleans Teachers, but Schools Still Under Attack

A court has ruled that Louisiana stole funds from thousands of school employees after Hurricane Katrina. That's good news for teachers -- but NOLA's schools are still struggling.

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It's a very natural thing, when a school isn't doing well, to blame the teachers. But if you look at the conditions the schools were in, and the history of institutionalized racism that pervades southern towns and cities including New Orleans, the reason that the schools, before the storm were not doing well, are far more complicated than I think a lot of people [are willing] to explore.

So for all the slick rhetoric about revamping schools, many students and teachers in New Orleans face a more painful struggle today than before the storm. In moving toward privatization and free-market ideology, the system has become in many ways much less accountable and less democratic, a crisis in education engendered by a cleverly exploited disaster.

On the statewide level, Governor Bobby Jindal is pushing a reform agenda that would offer vouchers to students in subpar schools, ease teacher certification standards for charters, and “allow parents in certain circumstances to vote a "failing" school into the state-run Recovery School District,” according to the Times-Picayune. In lieu of a fully credentialed teaching workforce, students could get education a la carte with “a new catalogue of courses offered by universities, private companies, or individual teachers that high school students will be able to pay for using tax dollars that would otherwise flow to their school.” So lawmakers may soon leave the dirty work of dismantling public schools to a flashy “marketplace of choices” that exchanges public dollars for corporate education modules.

Despite the court victory for the New Orleans teachers, Louisiana schools still face deep uncertainties. No legal reward would alleviate the deep sense of disillusionment and betrayal among the communities who were promised a miraculous recovery. “I don't know what we'll see,” Walters said. “Everyone lost a lot in that storm. And to lose your job in such an undignified way on top of it all was really dispiriting to a lot of people. So I just hope that people would think twice before they attempt to do something like that again."

Though the teachers' lawsuit may deter the state from attempting another mass firing, it won't stop politicians from pushing neoliberal reform models, in a grand social experiment that uses students and educators as captive subjects.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These Times, Colorlines.com, and Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has also appeared in Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.