The Silent Storm in New Orleans: Charter Schools

The memory of things gone is important to a jazz musician

-Louis Armstrong

In August of 2005 Hurricane Katrina decimated the city of New Orleans, Louisiana . Thousands died. Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were ravaged. Entire communities were destroyed. And as the city came together to bury their dead and begin rebuilding their lives, many saw it as an “opportunity to radically reform the educational system.”

Three months after the hurricane Louisiana expanded its state-run Recovery School District (“RSD”) to take over 107 New Orleans public schools traditionally under the Orleans Parish School Board (“OPSB”). They fired over 7,500 school employees, including 4,000 teachers. The restructuring of the school system was modeled after bankruptcy law. When a business goes bankrupt drastic changes are made so that the business can remain a viable entity. In essence, a business gets to start over. Currently, in 2016, there are only 6 public schools left operating. The rest are charter schools.

The change made in New Orleans has been the most radical overhaul of any type in any school district in at least a century. Charter schools receive public funding and are technically open to all students but their operations are basically private. They are not subject to transparency laws like public schools. Each of RSD’s charter schools is like a school district unto itself.

The revolution did not come without good reason. Before Katrina, most public schools in New Orleans performed abysmally. In 2005 the city ranked sixty-seventh out of sixty-eight districts in Louisiana, itself a low performer compared to other states. Last year, New Orleans was forty-first out of sixty-nine school districts in Louisiana. And according to a 2015 CREDO study, between 2006 and 2012 New Orleans’s charter students pushed nearly half a year of forward in math and a third of a year in reading, every year, compared to similar students in the city’s non-chartered public schools.

These numbers are definitely impressive. Many across America hail the New Orleans experiment as a resounding success and laud it as the new model of educational reform. But there is a hidden dark side to the ‘progress’ made in New Orleans. And it’s important not to celebrate until we fully understand the effect of the reforms.

An important selling point for the RSD is that it makes it far easier to close inadequate schools. The logic is that failing schools fail their communities. They should be removed to make way for more successful institutions that continually meet testing standards and therefore do better by their students.

But the vast majority of schools that were closed in New Orleans were in poor black neighborhoods. In fact, in 2014 a civil rights group filed a federal a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice that the school closures violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

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These communities—which already struggled from generations of disinvestment, over-incarceration, and unemployment—were the ones hit hardest by the hurricane and waited the longest after the storm for relief funds. Many of these schools had been around for hundreds of years and were cornerstones of their communities. Their closing was like a second storm had hit.

A second selling point of the new system is that the loosening up of oversight allows for a nimbleness in reforms. The traditional model has school boards and central administrations getting deeply involved in the important operations of a school. They often are forced to from crisis to crisis, sometimes losing sight of their core purpose. Necessary reforms can sometimes get caught up in red tape.

In the RSD model, central administrators don’t get as tangled up in day-today operations; they don’t actually run the schools. This gives a level flexibility and agility to the self-sufficient charters that can be a very effective tool for positive reform.  They can prioritize resources around a specific strategy without cumbersome oversight. They can make rapid changes to school policy. They can fire and hire staff without real consequence.

But the lack of oversight can also cause problems. It allowed schools to implement “no-excuse” strategies which have a laser-like focus on getting poor, black children into college. The policies include strict discipline, high-levels of suspension, longer school days and years; in some schools, like Lake Area New Tech Early College High School, “students are expected to walk in straight lines, remain silent, and wear a full uniform at all times.” Security guards take 15 to 20 minutes every morning to search each student and check for uniform violations. Many student felt more like prisoners than scholars.

The reform in New Orleans also permitted schools to be operated by outside organizations. Schools full of local black students soon became primarily taught by non-locals—often northern and white. A 2005 study found that teachers of a different race than their students were much more likely to evaluate that student as disruptive, inattentive, and rarely completing homework. These young men and women are undoubtedly well-intentioned. But often they are unaware of—or unprepared to deal with—many of the challenges their students face. Because they are new to the rich and unique culture that New Orleans has to offer, they don’t always have comprehensive understanding of the community they are serving.

And while these teachers may be very talented, they are also very temporary. An analysis of National Center for Education Statistics by the University of Arizona found that 46 percent of charter school teachers in Louisiana reported plans to leave, compared to 6 percent of public school teachers.

The combination of a harsh punitive structure, a struggling community, and inexperienced educators occasionally came together to ill-effect. Once again, the U.S. Education and Justice departments’ civil rights divisions were implored to investigate several New Orleans schools for unjust practices.

In the 2012 to 2013 school year Carver Collegiate had given out-of-school suspensions to an astonishing 70 percent of their students. The Louisiana average is less than ten percent. And it’s not just one school: in the 2007-08 school year the average suspension rate in New Orleans charters was still more than twice that of the state average and more than four times the national rate. These punitive measures are a serious matter because a suspended student misses an entire day of school—which according to Carver Colligate is like missing an entire week due to the fast pace of the curriculum.

According to a report from the Justice department some students were being sent home without the school notifying their parents. Students reported being expelled from riding the school bus without a parent being informed. Students told stories of being isolated in rooms to themselves—deprived of work from their classes for the day as a form of discipline—for minor violations such as “wearing jewelry”. Some parents and guardians claimed to have not been given a copy of the student handbook prior to the school year and had no notice of what the rules and procedures were or how they could appeal their child’s suspension. One student reported that he was, “made to sit in the back of the class every day and face the wall.”

A different report by the Southern Poverty Law Center claims that students—some as young as eleven—were put in handcuffs during school. Middle school kids were basically being prepped for a life in prison: “The principal said he was sick of seeing my face… He told me either go to ISS (in-school suspension) or get handcuffed. Then he had the security guard handcuff me to the heater in the office. I sat there for like three or more hours ‘til the end of the day.” New Orleans has one of the highest incarceration rates of any city in the world.

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Ten Most Incarcerated US Jurisdictions, 2005: jail incarceration rate per 1,000 residents. JS, Jail Inmates at Midyear 2007, U.S. Census Bureau (The Data Center, “The New Orleans Index at Ten: Criminal Justice: Changing Course on Incarceration”)

This kind of thing didn’t happen in most schools in the city. Most schools in New Orleans want their students to feel safe and at home in their place of learning. But that doesn’t change the fact that they did actually happen. And the harsh reality is that it only was allowed because these young men and women are poor and black and therefore hyper-vulnerable to abuses in power.

Many New Orleans charter schools have a fundamental discipline crises. The flexibility afforded to charters comes at the cost of accountability towards the community at-large. For the families of many students, the initial hope they felt when first hearing about education reform in New Orleans has turned into despair.

Their narrative is a cautionary tale to other cities that are looking to convert their public school system into one dominated by the private sector. School reform is important but it should never come at the expense of families and children that struggle to access the basic components of a free, public, and quality education.

 

 

 

 

 

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