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Privatizing New Orleans' Schools
Coming to a City Near You
by LEIGH DAVIS

Vickie White is worried. "They are doing away with public education as we know it," she says. White helped organize a trip to New Orleans this summer for the People’s Organization for Progress (POP) Central Jersey. After seeing how public education is being drastically altered there, she said she feared that very system would spread. "The theme I came back with was, ‘Coming to a city near you,’" she says.

As children line up for school buses on first days of school throughout the country, the management of New Orleans’ schools post-Katrina is causing anxiety amongst public education advocates. Others, including the nonpartisan Urban Institute, and former Housing and Urban Development secretary Henry Cisneros (now chair of City-View, a private venture dedicated to urban housing development) are looking to the Crescent City as a model for the future of American education.

In June, POP Central Jersey and Newark’s House of Prayer Episcopal Church sponsored the 21st-Century Freedom Ride: New Jersey to New Orleans. The trip flew twenty-five people, a dozen of them high school students, to New Orleans to find out what was really happening there and to volunteer with Common Ground Collective, a grassroots relief organization founded by New Orleans residents shortly after Katrina. Besides helping with the cleanup effort in the Ninth Ward, the group saw what Katrina and government neglect did to the city and its residents — and what was being done to bring the city back.

While in New Orleans, the group attended an education summit hosted by the National Coalition for Quality Schools in New Orleans and the People’s Organizing Committee, a group working to help residents return to the city.

A Transfer of Power

Within days of Katrina, Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) convened a special meeting of the state legislature to talk about a takeover of the Orleans Parish Public School District, a district with a half-billion dollar budget serving New Orleans, the summit’s keynote speaker, Nat LaCour, secretary treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, told the gathering.

"This meeting took place while there were still people on roofs and at the Superdome waiting to be rescued," said White.

A few months later, the state legislature passed legislation giving the state control of 107 of New Orleans’ 128 public schools, by placing them under the authority of the Recovery School District (RSD).

Orleans Parish’s public schools have now been divided into three categories: public, charter, and the Recovery School District. A school receives the RSD designation if it is categorized as "failing," in some cases receiving the label only after a change in criteria since the hurricane. RSD schools are then managed by the state, not the local school board, and may be turned over to private foundations or other groups to be run as charter schools. Of the 57 public schools set to operate in New Orleans this school year, more than 30 are charter schools.

The Push for Charter Schools

Charter schools in Louisiana have received $44.8 million in grant money from the federal government since Hurricane Katrina. The first grant of $20.9 million in Sept. 2005 was for reopening charter schools damaged during the hurricane, expanding existing charter schools to accommodate displaced students, and creating 10 new charter schools. The second and larger grant, awarded this June, is a three-year grant to design and create new charter schools.

"Charter schools are empowering parents with new options in public education," U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a press release announcing the latest grants to Louisiana. But what is empowering about enrolling children in schools that Spellings’ own Department has admitted aren’t working?

"The evidence on charter schools is that they are less likely than public schools to meet state education goals," Lisa Delpit, executive director of the Center for Urban Education & Innovation, told the New Orleans education summit. Delpit, who has studied the implementation of charter schools throughout the country, was citing a 2005 report issued by the U.S. Department of Education.

Through case studies in Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Texas, the report found that charter schools are lagging behind public schools in meeting performance standards. The report also noted that charter schools are "less likely than traditional public schools to employ teachers meeting state certification standards."

Further, because charter schools may be selective, students must apply to get in. Students can be rejected if they have not taken certain courses required by the state or haven’t kept up their grades. One New Orleans student told the New Jersey group he couldn’t get into his neighborhood public school upon his return to the city, because the grades he earned while living in another state after the hurricane were "not good enough."

"The charter school system creates competition among students," said Ellen Whitt of New Brunswick, a school librarian who went on the trip to New Orleans as a chaperone. "And there is very little oversight to prevent abuse, discrimination and segregation based on race and class."

The Schools–And the Teachers–Aren’t the Same

Most students have been able to return to school, but it’s not like school was before the hurricane. Kara, a middle school student, told the summit that her "night school" classes, which went until 9 pm, had been "a blessing." But she worried about the loss of after-school activities. "More things should be open for young people like me because there are so many things out there that could be negative and not enough positive things for young people to do," she said. "Somebody, like the president, should care more about the young people down here."

Evidence suggests that the state and school board may also be using the opportunity presented by the hurricane to bust the teachers’ union. When the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) lost control of 102 schools mere weeks after Katrina, 7,500 school personnel — many of them veteran teachers of 20-plus years — were placed on "disaster leave" without pay. The state then refused to recognize the teachers’ contract, instead instructing teachers to reapply as new employees.

In early August, OPSB employees filed suit in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, claiming that they were deprived of "constitutional rights to property [their jobs], due process, and equal protection" as guaranteed by the state’s constitution.

While State Superintendent Cecil J. Picard stated that Louisiana would solicit federal funds to "make each public school employee whole," no funds or additional information have been received. Instead, the OPSB employees say that the state "kicked them while they were down."

Despite the fact that the majority of teachers and 90 percent of the student population in pre-Katrina New Orleans were black, only about a quarter of the staff of the Recovery School District is black, according to Lance Hill, Executive Director for the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University.

Back to School?

More than 40 private and parochial schools were back in session within a few months of the hurricane. Yet only eight public schools run by the local school board reopened during the 2005-06 school year.

Katrina survivors living in a FEMA trailer park near Baker, La., had no school available to their children during the 2005-06 school year, even though there were teachers living there.

The Recovery School District predicts 30,000 students returning to New Orleans by January 2007 — most to the poorest black neighborhoods. But as of early August, the RSD staff was composed of only 10 employees, and discussion was focused on hiring substitute teachers to fill out school staff by Sept. 7.

About 9,000 students had registered in the Recovery School District a month before school was scheduled to open, according to Louisiana’s Department of Education. Among the 57 public schools slated to reopen during the 2006-07 school year, the status of 12 schools was unknown, while another 19 were still under repair as of mid-August.

As some schools opened their doors in mid-August, confusion reigned. Some families could not register their children in their previous neighborhood schools, as school registration is first-come, first-served, and the schools were already full.

Almost 2,000 students who registered online or by phone were told they needed to register in person by Aug. 11 or be dropped from the rolls.

Three schools operated by the Treme Charter School Association had their charters rescinded by the state, after the group submitted a very different operating plan than what was originally approved. This forced students from two of the three schools to re-register through the Recovery School District, which took the schools over. The third school will not open at all, leaving its students among the many New Orleans children scrambling to find other educational options.

LEIGH DAVIS is a longtime peace and justice activist. She’s been a counselor, an educator, and a writer. This piece was originally published by New Jersey’s progressive newsmagazine, City Belt at citybelt.org.