Part II: New Orleans's Children Fighting for the Right to Learn
By Bill Quigley
t r u t h o u t | Report
Friday 10 August 2007(In the first installment of this article, which can be found here, Bill Quigley described the massive charter school educational experiment going on in New Orleans. That experiment has divided public school children into two groups - those in the charter and high-performing school group and those assigned to the Recovery School District (RSD) a state-managed set of schools for the rest of the children. In this installment, Bill continues the examination and looks at possible and predictable outcomes of this division between the haves and the have-nots.)
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 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 100 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 100 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 Report "Evaluation of the Public Charter Schools Program," the US 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." See full study at: http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/choice/pcsp-final/execsum.html.
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 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, she 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, 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 or 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 ... who 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 as both a civil rights attorney and a 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. The 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 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, showing 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, 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 http://www.nolaparentsguide.org.
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?"
Conclusion - 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 the 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 New Orleans 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 health care and public housing are going the same way. Those with the economic and political power are remaking 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 help 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, none of the supporters of this experiment have demonstrated a willingness to send their own children to an 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 Quigley@loyno.edu.