Rethinking New Orleans Schools

On Friday, July 21, 19 New Orleans public school students gathered to speak about their vision for improved city schools. They stood outside Sherwood Forest Elementary, a flooded and devastated public school in a still mostly desolate New Orleans East neighborhood.

In front of the assembled crowd, they opened the door to the school, showing hallways filled with trash and the unmistakable smell of mold and neglect. Aaron Danielson, a middle school student, told the assembled crowd, "People often think that kids want impossible things but we only want things that are essential, like good teachers, better books and enough supplies."

The students were part of Rethink, a project organized by education advocates that is aimed at bringing youth voices into evaluating and shaping the future of New Orleans' schools. The students told bleak stories of the problems facing their schools. "We have to share a desk, we have to share books," Shannon Taylor, 16, explained. "A friend graduated school, and she never owned a book sack, because the school never gave her books."

The kids and organizers of Rethink are just some of the voices in a wide-ranging cacophony taking place in New Orleans' schools, a struggle in which everyone seems to be speaking for what they claim are the best interests of New Orleans' children.

By highlighting the voices of city youth, the Rethink project has taken an important step towards reframing the debate and highlighting the severity of the issues faced. They also placed demands on school board officials for a continued role for youth in evaluating their own schools.

Battleground in a national fight over charter schools

Post-Katrina New Orleans has become a battleground in a national fight over competing visions for the future of urban education. Last September, with the city evacuated and all the schools closed, with no parents or students or teachers around, suddenly anything became possible. Instead of making gradual changes to an existing system, there was no system, and virtually no rules or limits on what could be changed. "It's almost a blank slate for whatever agenda people want to bring," confirms New Orleans-based education reform advocate Aesha Rasheed."

Days after New Orleans was flooded, the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank based in Washington, D.C., was already advocating for vouchers and "market solutions" to the city's education problems. Late last year, President Bush announced the allocation of $488 million to help families displaced by Katrina place students in private schools. Critics viewed it as a back-door approach to get public funding for private schools and would essentially create the first national school voucher plan. Charter school advocates, opponents of teachers unions, and many national education activists on the right and left have joined the fray.

Before the storm and displacement, New Orleans had 128 public schools, 4,000 teachers and 60,000 students. The system was widely regarded as in crisis. Three quarters of eighth-graders failed to score at the basic level on state English assessments. In some schools, the high school military recruiting program was a mandatory class, mostly because funding wasn't available for other programs. Ten school superintendents in ten years had been fired or quit. Many parents, especially white parents, had pulled their kids out of the system -- almost half of the city's students were enrolled in private schools and parochial schools. Advocates accused the school system of functioning as little more than a warehousing program for Black youth.

The deeply rooted racial and class inequalities New Orleans faces date back to at least the Jim Crow era. Soon after New Orleans schools integrated after the historic Brown v. Board of education court decision, white parents began pulling their kids out of the public schools and with them much of the tax base that had funded these schools. For decades after, the schools steadily declined.

A blank slate for remaking schools

Now, the post-Katrina school system has already been radically reshaped. A mostly public school system prior to the storm has become a mostly charter system. While the city's private schools saw almost 90 percent of their students return in spring 2006, only 20 percent of public school students returned. A total of 25 schools have reopened with just four run by the local school board, 18 are charters, and three are run by the state. Most former public school students remain displaced.

Photo by Jordan Flaherty.

It is true that Louisiana has not rushed blindly into charters. The process began in 1995, around the same time much of the country started exploring the idea. Although chartered schools have expanded greatly post-Katrina, the state gave charter school contracts to a fraction of the organizations that applied, initially approving only six out of 44 proposals for next year. Still, the overall transformation has been radical, with a total of more than 30 out of 35 of schools opening this fall transformed to charters.

For public school advocates, the radical transformation of New Orleans' education system has created a new field of concerns. They worry that the transformation is taking place without much public input and consent. The new administrations running the schools are often inexperienced and unprepared to take over the New Orleans system. "They say this is an experiment," Tracie Washington, NAACP lawyer and education advocate, explains, speaking about the plans of advocates of charter schools. "Tuskegee was an experiment. We have reason to be suspicious of experiments," Washington adds referring to a notorious clinical study conducted in 1932 on mostly poor African-American men without their consent.

The performance record of charter schools nationally is mixed at best. The U.S. Department of Education study in five states last year found that in those states 79 percent of the charter schools met state standards in student testing, compared with 94 percent of public schools.

The new transformation also changes the balance of power in the school system, radically altering the role of the school board and superintendent, who used to oversee 125 schools and currently oversee just five. Charter schools are unaccountable to the board other than in some basic standards.

The question of the role of the teachers' union -- previously the largest and perhaps strongest in the city -- is another contentious issue tied up in the dispute over charters. The school board voted in the fall to lay off all but 61 of the 7,000 employees, and in June let the teachers' union contract expire with little comment and no fanfare. Those rehired at charter schools return without their union.

For some, the union represents a cog in a broken system. For others, they represent an important black-led political base advocating for justice within the education system. "Elites of the city may prefer the teachers don't come back because they represent an educated class of black New Orleans, with steady income, seniority, job protection," Jacques Morial, community advocate and brother of former mayor Marc Morial, said at a recent forum.

"There is an access barrier," Rasheed confirms. "In the old New Orleans, charters were an island in a sea of city schools. That's no longer the case. There's currently a big group of kids that don't have a school. Some think its one or two thousand. That's a lot considering only 12,000 total returned (in the spring semester)."

Pre-Katrina, thousands of kids every year didn't pre-register for any school -- they simply showed up at their neighborhood public school on the first day, and the school found them a place. Now, most of those neighborhood schools don't exist, and those that do are no longer obligated to place students who just show up. Add to that the fact the no one knows just how many students will be back for the fall semester -- recent estimates place the number at 30,000 -- and you have a recipe for chaos.

Issue of charter schools crosses traditional partisan lines

Nationwide, the fight over charter schools has crossed traditional boundaries of left and right, with many progressives supporting charter schools as a potential tool for community control of schools, and an opportunity to try education strategies that would not be possible through the common bureaucracy of public schools.

Photo by Jordan Flaherty.

Opponents see charter schools as a back-door strategy used by conservatives to undermine public schools, and to create a two-tiered "separate but equal" hierarchy within the public school system. Others accuse the charter schools of refusing to take most "special needs" students, although local charter school advocates insist that isn't the case.

The struggle over what form the education system will take is also fundamental to the larger issue of who will return and when. At neighborhood meetings throughout the city and its diaspora, parents are anxious. In Houston and Atlanta, displaced parents are asking if their kids will have a school if they return. Without these fundamental questions answered, these concerns and uncertainties become another reason for parents to not return to the city.

Whatever path is taken, to truly improve the system we need much more funding and resources than the city has received. "The problems in New Orleans' education system are so huge, so widespread, so longstanding, it defies simple solutions," Mtangulizi Sanyinka project manager of New Orleans' African American Leadership Project adds.

Many youth who have not returned face unresolved trauma in a hostile new environment. Of the 560 evacuee children in one large evacuee camp outside Baton Rouge, only 190 were still attending when the school year ended. "The kids in Houston don't like us. They treat us funny. I just want to come home," says Yasmond Perry, a displaced 13-year-old from the Calliope housing projects.

For the students who have returned, their future is unclear. Many still do not know what school they will be attending in the fall. Few will be returning to the same school they left, or to their former classmates. Melissa Augustine, another student involved in Rethink, listed the basic things she and other students want -- clean bathrooms, qualified teachers, books and school supplies, and healthy food. "We should not have to ask for these things," she declared. "We deserve them."

Whether the school system becomes charter-based or public, it is these fundamental questions that remain unresolved.

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