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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.

Photo Credit: Caitlin Mirra via


The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive In These Times' weekly updates.

After Hurricane Katrina washed over New Orleans, many survivors had virtually nothing left to lose. But the city's teachers were then hit by the storm’s ripple effect: the loss of thousands of jobs in the tattered school system. Recently, a civil district court ruled that the state had effectively robbed thousands of school employees of funds that were supposed to help tide them over as the city recovered.

After Katrina, the New York Times reports, most New Orleans schools were taken over by the state’s Recovery School District, which absorbed a stream of federal aid while the local school board was left impoverished:

In December 2005, the local school board, with few schools and little money in its control, passed a resolution firing 7,500 school employees, who at that time had been on “disaster leave without pay,” an employment status that Judge Julien found in her decision to be “fictional.” She concluded that the state was liable for rendering the local board unable to fulfill its contractual obligations to its workers.

The ruling could lead to major payments to teachers whose careers and wages were upended by the purge. But aside from recompense for “disaster leave,” New Orleans public schools will remain adrift in a flood of drastic reforms. After Katrina, the city became an incubator for non-unionized charter schools and “experimental” restructuring plans.

But rather than “saving” New Orleans schools from failure, the overhaul has aggravated divides between black and white, wealthy and poor, by pushing schools to operate more like corporations.

Maynard Sanders at the Bankstreet College of Education wrote last year about the New Orleans Recovery School District as a case study in de facto segregation between “selective schools” and those serving poor students of color. Often, he added, the charters that many have hailed as an emblem of progress “are run like private schools by self-appointed boards without any parent, community, or teacher representation... There is no transparency in charter school operations, finances or hiring while they receive public money and operate rent free in public school buildings.”

One major plank of the agenda for restructuring New Orleans schools--which reflects national reform trends promoted by the Obama administration--is “decentralization” of the system and the expansion of “choice” of schools across districts. But critics say a decentralized school system can become dangerously fractured, and choice is constrained by feudal social barriers.

Luis Miron, director of the Institute for Quality and Equity in Education at Loyala University New Orleans, told In These Times that under this system, a large majority of the schools “are run by independent boards that function as districts unto [themselves]. It is an unprecedented system of 'universal choice' that in effect undermines the neighborhood public schools, which are more geographically and culturally accessible to poor and minority families, many of whom are suffering from violent crime in the city.”

Nearly seven years after Katrina, many of the New Orleans children hit by the storm are nearing the end of their public schooling years, and academic ratings for their schools have been dismal, despite the influx of charters and corporate-style reforms. And regardless of student performance, the rush to fix troubled schools has eroded a basic pillar of public education--a collective mission to serve the community through shared resources and responsibilities.

Elizabeth Walters, a writer and teacher in St. Bernard Parish who has been observing the state’s educational politics since moving to New Orleans to teach in 2007, told In These Times: