After Hurricane Katrina washed over New Orleans, many survivors had virtually nothing left to lose. But the city’s teachers were then hit by the storm’s ripple effect: the loss of thousands of jobs in the tattered school system. Recently, a civil district court ruled that the state had effectively robbed thousands of school employees of funds that were supposed to help tide them over as the city recovered.
After Katrina, the New York Times reports, most New Orleans schools were taken over by the state’s Recovery School District, which absorbed a stream of federal aid while the local school board was left impoverished:
In December 2005, the local school board, with few schools and little money in its control, passed a resolution firing 7,500 school employees, who at that time had been on “disaster leave without pay,” an employment status that Judge Julien found in her decision to be “fictional.” She concluded that the state was liable for rendering the local board unable to fulfill its contractual obligations to its workers.
The ruling could lead to major payments to teachers whose careers and wages were upended by the purge. But aside from recompense for “disaster leave,” New Orleans public schools will remain adrift in a flood of drastic reforms. After Katrina, the city became an incubator for non-unionized charter schools and “experimental” restructuring plans.
But rather than “saving” New Orleans schools from failure, the overhaul has aggravated divides between black and white, wealthy and poor, by pushing schools to operate more like corporations.
Maynard Sanders at the Bankstreet College of Education wrote last year about the New Orleans Recovery School District as a case study in de facto segregation between “selective schools” and those serving poor students of color. Often, he added, the charters that many have hailed as an emblem of progress “are run like private schools by self-appointed boards without any parent, community, or teacher representation… There is no transparency in charter school operations, finances or hiring while they receive public money and operate rent free in public school buildings.”
One major plank of the agenda for restructuring New Orleans schools – which reflects national reform trends promoted by the Obama administration–is “decentralization” of the system and the expansion of “choice” of schools across districts. But critics say a decentralized school system can become dangerously fractured, and choice is constrained by feudal social barriers.
Luis Miron, director of the Institute for Quality and Equity in Education at Loyala University New Orleans, told In These Times that under this system, a large majority of the schools “are run by independent boards that function as districts unto [themselves]. It is an unprecedented system of ‘universal choice’ that in effect undermines the neighborhood public schools, which are more geographically and culturally accessible to poor and minority families, many of whom are suffering from violent crime in the city.”
Nearly seven years after Katrina, many of the New Orleans children hit by the storm are nearing the end of their public schooling years, and academic ratings for their schools have been dismal, despite the influx of charters and corporate-style reforms. And regardless of student performance, the rush to fix troubled schools has eroded a basic pillar of public education – a collective mission to serve the community through shared resources and responsibilities.
Elizabeth Walters, a writer and teacher in St. Bernard Parish who has been observing the state’s educational politics since moving to New Orleans to teach in 2007, told In These Times:
It’s a very natural thing, when a school isn’t doing well, to blame the teachers. But if you look at the conditions the schools were in, and the history of institutionalized racism that pervades southern towns and cities including New Orleans, the reason that the schools, before the storm were not doing well, are far more complicated than I think a lot of people [are willing] to explore.
So for all the slick rhetoric about revamping schools, many students and teachers in New Orleans face a more painful struggle today than before the storm. In moving toward privatization and free-market ideology, the system has become in many ways much less accountable and less democratic, a crisis in education engendered by a cleverly exploited disaster.
On the statewide level, Governor Bobby Jindal is pushing a reform agenda that would offer vouchers to students in subpar schools, ease teacher certification standards for charters, and “allow parents in certain circumstances to vote a “failing” school into the state-run Recovery School District,” according to the Times-Picayune. In lieu of a fully credentialed teaching workforce, students could get education à la carte with “a new catalogue of courses offered by universities, private companies, or individual teachers that high school students will be able to pay for using tax dollars that would otherwise flow to their school.” So lawmakers may soon leave the dirty work of dismantling public schools to a flashy “marketplace of choices” that exchanges public dollars for corporate education modules.
Despite the court victory for the New Orleans teachers, Louisiana schools still face deep uncertainties. No legal reward would alleviate the deep sense of disillusionment and betrayal among the communities who were promised a miraculous recovery. “I don’t know what we’ll see,” Walters said. “Everyone lost a lot in that storm. And to lose your job in such an undignified way on top of it all was really dispiriting to a lot of people. So I just hope that people would think twice before they attempt to do something like that again.”
Though the teachers’ lawsuit may deter the state from attempting another mass firing, it won’t stop politicians from pushing neoliberal reform models, in a grand social experiment that uses students and educators as captive subjects.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.