10 Years After Katrina, New Orleans’ All-Charter School System Has Proven a Failure

Test scores tell one story, and residents tell another. A three-month investigation by In These Times reveals the cracks in the education reform narrative.

Colleen Kimmett

On Sept. 24, 2005, in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, a school bus is submerged in post-Katrina flooding. Half of the city's public school infrastructure was damaged beyond repair. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Ninth grade was noth­ing like what Dar­rius Jones expect­ed. Jones, 14, imag­ined that with high school would come more inde­pen­dence. Instead, he felt like he was being treat­ed like a kid. You had to sit a cer­tain way,” he recalls. You couldn’t lean, or have your chair back.” Jones says he stepped out of line once — an actu­al line on the floor of the hall­way, which stu­dents were sup­posed to fol­low — and was sent to detention.

Karran Harper Royal was pleased to be invited to join a citizens’ committee in 2006 to plan for the future of New Orleans schools. But she soon became disillusioned, convinced that the state didn’t really want citizen input—it already had a plan and was simply seeking approval.

It was the begin­ning of the 2012 school year, and Jones was in the first class of stu­dents at Carv­er Col­le­giate Acad­e­my, a brand-new char­ter school in New Orleans’ Low­er Ninth Ward. Like a pub­lic school, it is fund­ed by tax­pay­ers and open to any­one. But as a char­ter, it is man­aged inde­pen­dent­ly by a board of direc­tors that can do its own hir­ing and fir­ing, write its own poli­cies and teach accord­ing to its own phi­los­o­phy. In the case of Carv­er Col­le­giate, that phi­los­o­phy is one of no excus­es” — strict rules and swift discipline.

Carv­er is part of New Orleans’ Recov­ery School Dis­trict (RSD), the first all-char­ter school dis­trict in the nation. In the chaos after Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na, Louisiana opt­ed to com­plete­ly over­haul the city’s fail­ing pub­lic schools by putting them on the open mar­ket. Ten years lat­er, cities and states around the coun­try have embarked on their own char­ter-school exper­i­ments and are watch­ing New Orleans close­ly, laser-focused on outcomes.

Test scores have improved, accord­ing to two major reports that exam­ine aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ment over the past nine years. On Katrina’s 10th anniver­sary, RSD is being held up as a nation­al mod­el. The grad­u­a­tion rate has risen from 56 per­cent to 73 per­cent. Last year, 63 per­cent of stu­dents in grades 3 – 8 scored basic or above on state stan­dard­ized tests, up from 33 percent. 

But by oth­er mea­sures, the RSD suf­fers. In These Times received an advance copy of research con­duct­ed for the Net­work for Pub­lic Edu­ca­tion (NPE) by Uni­ver­si­ty of Ari­zona researchers Francesca López and Amy Olson. The study com­pared char­ters in Louisiana, the major­i­ty of which are in New Orleans, to Louisiana pub­lic schools, con­trol­ling for fac­tors like race, eth­nic­i­ty, pover­ty and whether stu­dents qual­i­fied for spe­cial edu­ca­tion. On eighth-grade read­ing and math tests, char­ter-school stu­dents per­formed worse than their pub­lic-school coun­ter­parts by enor­mous mar­gins — 2 to 3 stan­dard deviations. 

The researchers found that the gap between char­ter and pub­lic school per­for­mance in Louisiana was the largest of any state in the coun­try. And Louisiana’s over­all scores were the fourth-low­est in the nation.

You can say until you’re blue in the face that this should be a nation­al mod­el, but this is one of the worst-per­form­ing dis­tricts in one of the worst-per­form­ing states,” says NPE board mem­ber Julian Vasquez Heilig, an edu­ca­tion pro­fes­sor at Cal­i­for­nia State Sacramento.

How­ev­er, test scores, high or low, are only a piece of the sto­ry. In a three-month inves­ti­ga­tion, In These Times inter­viewed teach­ers, par­ents and stu­dents to find out how they feel about the char­ter­i­za­tion of pub­lic edu­ca­tion in New Orleans.

Com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers mourned the clo­sures of pub­lic schools that had served as neigh­bor­hood hubs. Stu­dents at no-excus­es char­ters described feel­ing like they were in prison, or boot­camp. Teach­ers felt demor­al­ized, like they didn’t have a voice in the class­room. Par­ents com­plained about a lack of black teach­ers. In inter­view after inter­view, peo­ple said the same thing: The sys­tem doesn’t put children’s needs first. 

A swift takeover

Before Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na, New Orleans pub­lic schools were strug­gling. The grad­u­a­tion rate was 18 points below the nation­al aver­age. Six­ty-eight per­cent of sev­enth and eighth graders were test­ing below basic pro­fi­cien­cy in Eng­lish, 70 per­cent in math.

After the hur­ri­cane hit in August 2005, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) laid off some 3,000 staff and 4,000 teach­ers. More than half its phys­i­cal infra­struc­ture was dam­aged beyond repair, and its tax base was displaced.

The state of Louisiana then col­lab­o­rat­ed with cor­po­rate edu­ca­tion reform­ers in the most expan­sive over­haul ever seen in the his­to­ry of pub­lic education.

In Novem­ber, the state leg­is­la­ture raised the bar for pub­lic schools to avoid takeover. With parts of the city still under­wa­ter, 107 of New Orleans’ 128 pub­lic schools were sud­den­ly in the hands of the all-char­ter Recov­ery School Dis­trict (RSD) — a two-year-old dis­trict that pre­vi­ous­ly con­tained only five schools.

Basi­cal­ly, we became the dog that caught the bus,” said Leslie Jacobs, a for­mer mem­ber of the State Board of Ele­men­tary and Sec­ondary Edu­ca­tion and the woman wide­ly known as the brains behind RSD, in an inter­view with the Wash­ing­ton Month­ly. We had noth­ing: no schools, no build­ings, no cafe­te­ria work­ers, no buses.”

What they did have was the back­ing of the nation­al edu­ca­tion reform” move­ment, which push­es char­ters and high-stakes test­ing. With the pub­lic-school bureau­cra­cy out of the way, pow­er­hous­es in the reform move­ment, such as the Wal­ton and Gates foun­da­tions, came call­ing. In a 2006 inter­view with Edu­ca­tion Next mag­a­zine, May­or Ray Nagin put it this way: They said, Look, you set up the right envi­ron­ment, we will fund, total­ly fund, brand-new schools for the city of New Orleans.’ ”

And they did. 

In sharp con­trast to the glacial pace with which the lev­ees were repaired and the elec­tric­i­ty grid brought back online, the auc­tion­ing-off of New Orleans’ school sys­tem took place with mil­i­tary speed and pre­ci­sion,” writes Nao­mi Klein in her land­mark 2007 book The Shock Doc­trine. She holds up the takeover as a prime exam­ple of dis­as­ter cap­i­tal­ism”: orches­trat­ed raids on the pub­lic sphere in the wake of cat­a­stroph­ic events, com­bined with the treat­ment of dis­as­ters as excit­ing mar­ket opportunities.”

Today, RSD over­sees 70 per­cent of the pub­lic schools in New Orleans. OPSB still con­tains 16 schools, the major­i­ty of which are now charters.

Each of RSD’s char­ter schools is like a school dis­trict unto itself. Although RSD reg­u­lates some things — for instance, that schools have open enroll­ment — char­ters are oth­er­wise autonomous. They have their own boards, which set rules like length of school day, dress code and hir­ing prac­tices, and their own man­age­ment. In Louisiana and many oth­er states, the board must be non­prof­it. But man­age­ment can be either non­prof­it or for-profit.

Oth­er states have fol­lowed Louisiana’s lead. In 2012, after Michi­gan Gov. Rick Sny­der put Detroit under emer­gency man­age­ment, the man­ag­er closed 16 city schools and hand­ed 15 to the Edu­ca­tion Achieve­ment Author­i­ty, which received mil­lions from the likes of the Kel­logg and Gates foun­da­tions. In 2013, Ten­nessee cre­at­ed the Achieve­ment School Dis­trict to take over the state’s worst-per­form­ing schools; the dis­trict now runs 27 Mem­phis schools, 20 of them charters.

Oth­ers are sure to fol­low, as long as the nar­ra­tive of char­ter suc­cess holds. Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Arne Dun­can declared, in 2010, that Kat­ri­na was the best thing that hap­pened to the edu­ca­tion sys­tem in New Orleans.”

An anchor lost

To the com­mu­ni­ty groups that filed a fed­er­al civ­il rights com­plaint in May 2014, the post-Kat­ri­na school reforms were dev­as­tat­ing.”

The vast major­i­ty of pub­lic schools closed by RSD in the past five years were in poor and work­ing class, African-Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hoods,” the com­plaint says. Many of the schools exist­ed for over a hun­dred years before being closed and had been attend­ed by mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions in one fam­i­ly. These schools employed teach­ers and admin­is­tra­tors who have taught in our com­mu­ni­ties for decades — staff who hold com­mu­ni­ty knowl­edge, under­stand the hard­ships that face our stu­dents, and pass down our shared val­ues. … After every­thing that we lost in Kat­ri­na, it has been dev­as­tat­ing to lose our schools as well.”

Kar­ran Harp­er Roy­al, a co-author of the com­plaint, is a for­mer OPSB par­ent who was active in edu­ca­tion pol­i­tics before the storm. She was pleased to be invit­ed to join a cit­i­zens’ com­mit­tee in 2006 to plan for the future of New Orleans schools. But Roy­al soon became dis­il­lu­sioned, con­vinced that the state didn’t real­ly want cit­i­zen input — it already had a plan and was sim­ply seek­ing approval.

On a mug­gy after­noon in June, Roy­al dri­ves me around the neigh­bor­hood where her great-grand­moth­er lived. As a girl, Roy­al spent a lot of time here. 

Most of the res­i­dents were poor and black, and most attend­ed George Wash­ing­ton Carv­er High School in the Low­er Ninth Ward. Although Roy­al went to a dif­fer­ent school, many peo­ple she grew up with went there: friends, cousins, her husband

Most of the project’s res­i­dents were poor and black, and most attend­ed George Wash­ing­ton Carv­er High School in the Low­er Ninth Ward. Although Roy­al went to a dif­fer­ent school, many peo­ple she grew up with went there: friends, cousins, her husband. 

Carv­er was one of the aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly unac­cept­able” pub­lic schools trans­ferred to RSD after Kat­ri­na. Though its test scores were low, locals nonethe­less took pride in it. An award-win­ning exam­ple of mid-cen­tu­ry mod­ern archi­tec­ture, Carv­er had a soar­ing audi­to­ri­um and large cafe­te­ria built to cre­ate a sense of a vil­lage. Its day­care cen­ter and music pro­gram were renowned city­wide. Carv­er had a strong alum­ni net­work and served as an anchor for the neigh­bor­hood, bring­ing peo­ple togeth­er for foot­ball games and march­ing band per­for­mances. Its com­put­er lab was an impor­tant resource for locals.

Was it the best school in the city? No,” says Roy­al. But did it pro­duce great peo­ple? Yes, it did. Were there some peo­ple at Carv­er who didn’t make it? That’s true, too. Carv­er was in the mid­dle of a very poor community.”

After the storm, RSD demol­ished Carv­er and built a mod­u­lar cam­pus in its place — portable class­rooms con­nect­ed by wood­en board­walks. Some alum­ni and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers formed George Wash­ing­ton Carv­er Char­ter School Asso­ci­a­tion in a bid to char­ter the school them­selves, but their three appli­ca­tions to RSD were turned down.

Instead, in 2012, RSD turned the school over to Col­le­giate Acad­e­mies, con­sid­ered a lead­ing light of the char­ter move­ment. Its flag­ship school, Sci Acad­e­my, had opened in New Orleans in 2008 and seen sig­nif­i­cant gains in math and Eng­lish with­in two years. Sci Acad­e­my was fea­tured on The Oprah Win­frey Show, which award­ed founder and CEO Ben Mar­covitz a $1 mil­lion check.

Col­le­giate Acad­e­mies is one of sev­er­al grow­ing char­ter net­works in New Orleans mod­eled on what’s often referred to as the no-excus­es approach. Dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly used in poor and minor­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties, the mod­el is char­ac­ter­ized by longer school days (and years), fre­quent test­ing, and strict rou­tines and behav­ioral codes enforced by demer­it sys­tems. Stu­dents can earn deten­tion — and, even­tu­al­ly, sus­pen­sion — for rel­a­tive­ly small infrac­tions. In the 2012 – 13 school year, the three Col­le­giate Acad­e­mies schools had the high­est out-of-school sus­pen­sion rates in New Orleans. Sci Acad­e­my sus­pend­ed 58 per­cent of its stu­dents, and the two char­ters opened on the for­mer Carv­er cam­pus, Carv­er Prep and Carv­er Col­le­giate, sus­pend­ed 61 and 69 per­cent of their stu­dents, respectively.

There isn’t yet a robust body of research on whether the no-excus­es mod­el encour­ages aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess. One wide­ly cit­ed analy­sis does show that chil­dren who were ran­dom­ly select­ed to attend no excus­es” char­ter schools out­per­formed peers who weren’t.

But oth­er research sug­gests that the approach pro­duces good rule fol­low­ers but poor crit­i­cal thinkers. Prince­ton doc­tor­al stu­dent Joanne Golann spent 18 months con­duct­ing field­work in a no-excus­es char­ter school in a North­east­ern city, inter­view­ing close to one hun­dred stu­dents, teach­ers and admin­is­tra­tors. She found that stu­dents, in many cas­es, are taught to mon­i­tor them­selves, hold back their opin­ions and defer to author­i­ty, rather than take ini­tia­tive, assert them­selves and inter­act with ease with their teach­ers.” She con­clud­ed that these schools pro­duce work­er-learn­ers to close the achieve­ment gap.”

Rebel­lion in the ranks

When Rowe­na McCormick Robin­son attend­ed an ori­en­ta­tion for prospec­tive Sci Acad­e­my par­ents, it seemed promis­ing. Offi­cials assured her that the school offered advanced place­ment class­es, extracur­ric­u­lars and an atmos­phere of strict dis­ci­pline. The kind of place where her bright and qui­et 14-year-old son, Rus­sell, would thrive.

But with­in weeks of start­ing, the teenag­er, who nor­mal­ly woke up for school on his own, didn’t want to get out of bed. I hate going there,” he told his mom. It’s like prison.” When she heard about the rules the school was enforc­ing — rules about the way the kids had to sit, the way they raised their hand — she was furious. 

These kids might be row­dy, she says, and many might come from dys­func­tion­al homes, but they weren’t that bad. She thought it was wrong that so many were being pun­ished as though they were delinquents. 

Some of the stu­dents felt the same. Dar­rius Jones, who had been giv­en deten­tion for step­ping out of line at Carv­er Col­le­giate, sim­ply trans­ferred schools. But in 2013, oth­er kids at Carv­er Prep and Carv­er Col­le­giate start­ed talk­ing about a revolt. On Nov. 18, 2013, near­ly 100 stu­dents walked out. They print­ed a list of 13 con­cerns, includ­ing, We are learn­ing mate­r­i­al that we already learned in mid­dle school” and We want a dis­ci­pline pol­i­cy that doesn’t sus­pend kids for every lit­tle thing.”

Ben Mar­covitz, CEO of Col­le­giate Acad­e­mies, met with stu­dents and made a plan for reforms. Last year, Col­le­giate Acad­e­mies launched a net­work-wide pro­gram focused on restora­tive dis­ci­pline meth­ods, instruct­ing teach­ers to assume a stu­dent has just for­got­ten a rule and to take time to explain it. We dropped our sus­pen­sion rates from 56 to 12 per­cent in one year,” he says.

But the no-excus­es approach shows no signs of going out of fash­ion. The rapid­ly grow­ing char­ter net­work Knowl­edge is Pow­er, for exam­ple, runs sev­en of RSD’s 80 char­ter schools under a no-excus­es mod­el, along with 176 more in edu­ca­tion­al­ly under­served” com­mu­ni­ties across the country.

Younger, whiter and non-union

Anoth­er flash­point in the Carv­er stu­dent protests was the racial make­up of the teach­ing staff. There are no black teach­ers,” the com­plaint read. The only black role mod­els we have at the school are jan­i­tors, cafe­te­ria work­ers, sec­re­taries, secu­ri­ty guards, and coaches.”

That both­ered Rowe­na, too. The teach­ers at Sci, she says, were young and white” and didn’t under­stand any­thing about the cul­ture. There are a few who real­ly care,” she says, but they are thrown into this with­out know­ing what they’re get­ting into.”

Col­le­giate made an effort to increase teacher diver­si­ty after the walk­out, going from an 8 per­cent black teach­ing force to 30 percent.

Over­all, how­ev­er, New Orleans’ teach­ing land­scape has shift­ed dra­mat­i­cal­ly since Kat­ri­na. Before the storm, 73 per­cent of Orleans Parish’s class­room teach­ers were black. Near­ly half of the teach­ers had been more than 15 years of expe­ri­ence. They were under a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment with the Unit­ed Teach­ers of New Orleans, an Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers affiliate. 

After the OPSB lay­offs, Teach for Amer­i­ca (TFA), a non­prof­it that trains col­lege grads to teach in under­priv­i­leged com­mu­ni­ties, swept in to fill the gap, tripling the num­ber of new recruits going to New Orleans.

The most recent teacher data avail­able, from 2013, shows that the New Orleans teach­ing force is now 54 per­cent black, while the stu­dent body is 87 per­cent. The teach­ers are more like­ly than before the storm to come from an alter­na­tive cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram, such as Teach­NO­LA or TFA. RSD teach­ers aver­age sev­en years of expe­ri­ence, OPSB char­ter teach­ers 12, and OPSB pub­lic school teach­ers 17. Only a few OPSB schools are union­ized, and RSD is entire­ly non-union (although some orga­niz­ing cam­paigns are underway). 

Do these things mat­ter? A 2005 study by Swarth­more researcher Thomas S. Dee found that teach­ers of a dif­fer­ent race than a stu­dent were sig­nif­i­cant­ly more like­ly to eval­u­ate that stu­dent as dis­rup­tive, inat­ten­tive and rarely com­plet­ing homework.

Cer­tain­ly, among New Orleans res­i­dents inter­viewed by In These Times, there was a sense that the loss of expe­ri­enced black teach­ers has been detri­men­tal to black stu­dents. Rowena’s moth­er, Rober­ta, taught art in a parochial school in Louisiana. When I was a teacher, I was par­ent­ing,” she says. What helped them so much was me being able to meet them where they were, with what­ev­er they lacked, or need­ed extra. … These teach­ers, they’re not ready. For what­ev­er rea­son, white folk fear black folks so much. They come in with the fear.”

A large body of research shows that teacher expe­ri­ence has a pos­i­tive impact on stu­dent learn­ing, espe­cial­ly after a teacher gets through the steep learn­ing curve of the first three years. 

Teacher reten­tion has been a chal­lenge for char­ter schools across the coun­try. RSD char­ter schools in New Orleans have an aver­age annu­al turnover of 27 per­cent. An analy­sis of Nation­al Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Sta­tis­tics by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Arizona’s López and Olson found that 46 per­cent of char­ter school teach­ers in Louisiana report­ed plans to leave, com­pared to 6 per­cent of pub­lic school teachers. 

One of the main rea­sons that teach­ers leave a post, accord­ing to Richard Inger­soll, a Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia pro­fes­sor who stud­ies teacher turnover, is the issue of voice.” Teach­ers want to feel like they have a say in the classroom. 

This was what both­ered Kel­ly Pick­ett, one of the young, white teach­ers who start­ed teach­ing in New Orleans after the storm. She’d been a chef for 10 years before going back to school at 28 to get her bachelor’s in ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion. Her first teach­ing post was in a first-grade class­room at Arthur Ashe Ele­men­tary, an RSD char­ter with a no-excus­es approach. She’d known it was a strict school, but hadn’t ful­ly under­stood how strict. She describes the expe­ri­ence as hor­ri­ble.”

The phi­los­o­phy is all about con­trol,” she says. Teach­ers were instruct­ed to keep stu­dents in the STARR” posi­tion: Sit straight, Track the speak­er with your eyes, And be Respon­sive and Respect­ful. Teach­ers had to post stu­dents’ test scores on the class­room walls. Bar charts showed where each stu­dent stood in com­par­i­son to the rest of the class and how much they need­ed to improve to raise the aver­age so the whole class could win can­dy or a piz­za par­ty. The scores also helped deter­mine teach­ers’ pay.

Pick­ett had to enforce a com­pli­cat­ed sys­tem of warn­ings and shout-outs on a behav­ioral stop­light at the front of the class­room. A stu­dent starts at green; two warn­ings move her to yel­low; two more, she’s at red and out of the class­room. Pos­i­tive shout-outs,” move stu­dents in the oth­er direc­tion. Shout-outs are for things like help­ing a class­mate or pay­ing atten­tion, and warn­ings for things like sit­ting improp­er­ly (not in STARR posi­tion) or for inter­rupt­ing dur­ing a lesson.

Pick­ett dis­agreed with the rules, but had no choice but to enforce them. 

The kids are smart. Real­ly smart,” Pick­ett says. Some of them find their rewards in this sys­tem, oth­ers see no point and act out delib­er­ate­ly to get out. They know exact­ly how to derail the sys­tem. I lit­er­al­ly have to scream at them, and I hate it.” 

After one semes­ter, Pick­ett quit.

Some are more wel­come than others

In the high-stakes edu­ca­tion sys­tem in New Orleans, a no-excus­es approach applies not just to indi­vid­ual stu­dents, but to schools. Those that fail to boost test scores can and do lose their charters. 

Accord­ing to a recent sur­vey of 30 prin­ci­pals from both RSD and OPSB schools, many feel pres­sure to com­pete for the right kind of stu­dents. The 2015 report, fund­ed by the Edu­ca­tion Research Alliance for New Orleans, found that about a third used means to screen out unde­sir­able stu­dents (“cream­ing,” as the authors described it), even though this is tech­ni­cal­ly not allowed under RSD’s open-admis­sions pol­i­cy. One school stopped adver­tis­ing open spots and enrolled 100 few­er kids, for­go­ing fund­ing, rather than attract less-capa­ble stu­dents.” In oth­er words, the report stat­ed, Some schools in New Orleans pre­ferred to remain under-enrolled than to attract stu­dents who might hurt their test scores. … They viewed these prac­tices as just part of their effort to cre­ate a coher­ent school cul­ture or as a neces­si­ty for sur­vival in a mar­ket-based environment.”

Among these prac­tices have been ille­gal attempts to exclude spe­cial edu­ca­tion stu­dents. This spring, Lagniappe Acad­e­mies, an ele­men­tary school in New Orleans’ Treme neigh­bor­hood, lost its char­ter license after the state board of edu­ca­tion found that admin­is­tra­tors had delib­er­ate­ly screened out spe­cial needs stu­dents by refus­ing them ser­vices and cre­at­ing a Do Not Call list of fam­i­lies they didn’t want to return the fol­low­ing year. Last year, Louisiana set­tled a suit filed by the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter on behalf of 10 spe­cial-needs stu­dents in New Orleans schools — sev­en of which were char­ters — alleg­ing that they’d been denied ser­vices and unfair­ly disciplined.

No-excus­es char­ter schools around the coun­try have been accused of dis­ci­plin­ing under­per­form­ing stu­dents in order to push them out. Most deny that claim, but what’s clear is that their strict demer­it sys­tems lead to high expul­sion rates. 

Even if they’re not expelled, stu­dents leave New Orleans’ RSD schools at unusu­al­ly high rates. At 61 per­cent, the grad­u­a­tion rate is the sec­ond-low­est in Louisiana. What hap­pens to the oth­er 39 per­cent? Only about 3 per­cent are list­ed as dropouts; the rest are list­ed as hav­ing switched schools or left the state. But no one real­ly knows for sure. There’s no cen­tral­ized data­base to track indi­vid­ual kids from K‑12. Youth advo­cates say this makes it easy for kids to fall through the cracks. Fif­teen per­cent of New Orleans youth ages 16 to 19 aren’t work­ing or in school, 6 points above the nation­al average.

Rebuild­ing com­mu­ni­ty power

The 10th anniver­sary of Kat­ri­na has sparked renewed inter­est in the New Orleans mod­el. A recent Chica­go Tri­bune edi­to­r­i­al yearned for a hur­ri­cane to strike Chica­go so that it, too, could have a reset” to do away with restric­tive man­dates” from gov­ern­ment and demands from teach­ers unions.

But the anniver­sary has also brought togeth­er the bud­ding grass­roots move­ment that’s fight­ing against the larg­er push for cor­po­rate edu­ca­tion reform.

In ear­ly August, Kris­ten Buras, author of Char­ter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Mar­ket Meets Grass­roots Resis­tance, helped orga­nize a two-day con­fer­ence in New Orleans on com­mu­ni­ty-cen­tered edu­ca­tion research. Social jus­tice advo­cates, edu­ca­tors and union lead­ers from 10 cities around the coun­try came togeth­er out of con­cern about a loss of com­mu­ni­ty con­trol over schools. Most, not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, are from urban school dis­tricts with high pover­ty rates and large pop­u­la­tions of stu­dents of color.

Many who have seen char­ters replace tra­di­tion­al pub­lic schools report the same prob­lems that New Orleans res­i­dents describe: clo­sures of pub­lic schools that held neigh­bor­hoods togeth­er, younger and less expe­ri­enced teach­ers, the loss of union jobs, exper­i­men­tal teach­ing prac­tics that can be rigid or harsh, cher­ryp­ick­ing of stu­dents and rapid teacher burn-out. 

In an email to In These Times, New York Uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tion pro­fes­sor and NPE founder Diane Rav­itch sum­ma­rized the emerg­ing, less-rosy nar­ra­tive of the New Orleans mod­el, That mod­el requires fir­ing all the teach­ers, no mat­ter their per­for­mance, allow­ing them to reap­ply for a job, and replac­ing many of them with inex­pe­ri­enced TFA recruits. That mod­el requires wip­ing out pub­lic schools and replac­ing them with pri­vate­ly man­aged schools that set their own stan­dards for admis­sion, dis­ci­pline, expul­sion, and are finan­cial­ly opaque. These heavy-hand­ed tac­tics require a sus­pen­sion of democ­ra­cy that would not be tol­er­at­ed in a white sub­urb, but can be done to pow­er­less urban dis­tricts where the chil­dren are black and Hispanic.” 

The good news, says Buras, is that, Com­mu­ni­ty-based activists expe­ri­enc­ing this mod­el are start­ing to con­nect with one anoth­er. The nar­ra­tive is start­ing to change.”

Sarah Cobar­ru­bias, Ethan Corey and Karen Gwee con­tributed research and report­ing to this article.

This inves­ti­ga­tion was sup­port­ed by the Fund for Inves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism and the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting

Colleen Kim­mett is a Cana­di­an jour­nal­ist who writes about social and envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice issues.
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