Kristen Buras, Ph.D., assistant professor at Georgia State University, has written extensively on post-Hurricane Katrina education reforms. Her work has appeared in numerous articles and publications. She recently published with a local research group a warning notice to communities across the country considering using the New Orleans education reform model for turning around their school systems. In this interview Dr. Kristen talks about fundamental problems with the education reforms in New Orleans and why communities should beware.
RS: Over the years, you’ve written extensively about education reform. Could you tell us about your articles and books?
KB: Much of my work has focused on education policy in New Orleans, the destructive effects it has had on Black working-class communities and how communities “speak out” to challenge what is happening in the city’s public schools. I coauthored a book with veteran teachers and students entitled Pedagogy, Policy, and the Privatized City: Stories of Dispossession and Defiance from New Orleans. It includes firsthand accounts on how privately managed charter schools and the mass firing of veteran teachers have negatively affected communities. My forthcoming book is called Charter Schools, Race, and Urban
Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance. As the title suggests, it charts the assault on Black public schools and neighborhoods by mostly White policymakers and entrepreneurs and bottom-up resistance to the education market that has been imposed on the community.
RS: Could you tell us what compelled you to join with colleagues to write a “Warning for Communities” about education reform in New Orleans?
KB: In early 2012, the city’s leading charter school incubator, New Schools for New Orleans, issued A Guide for Cities. Sen. Mary Landrieu organized a forum in Washington, DC, that highlighted the Guide to national policymakers. Their message was that cities across the nation should follow the New Orleans model of school reform because it has been an amazing success. Based on experience and research, we knew a different story needed to be told. When I say “we,” I mean Urban South Grassroots Research Collective (USGRC). As director of USGRC, I work closely with various longstanding educational and cultural organizations in New Orleans as well as other researchers engaged in documenting and challenging the inequities of charter schools. We joined together and published a response, New Orleans Education Reform: A Guide for Cities or a Warning for Communities? (What was most alarming about the Guide for Cities was its complete disregard for community voices and experiences. Elite policymakers, entrepreneurs and philanthropists who have advocated and benefitted from current reforms were consulted. Their perspectives framed the entire report. In our response, we discuss grassroots lessons we have learned since 2005 about charter schools and alternative teacher recruitment in New Orleans. For example, we have learned that firing veteran teachers is viewed as “innovative” by education entrepreneurs who recruit inexperienced staff to teach in charter schools at the expense of our children. Businesses like Teach for America say they are supplying “new talent” for schools. We document how they are subjecting Black children to transient, inexperienced recruits from outside the community who have no knowledge of how to teach students in culturally relevant ways. We also discuss the wrongful termination lawsuit waged by New Orleans’ veteran teachers, which the Guide for Cities virtually ignores. Our “Warning for Communities” appeared in Berkeley Review of Education and may be accessed for free at http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/3dd2726h.
RS: What do you see as the biggest problem with the education reforms in New Orleans post- Hurricane Katrina?
KB: The biggest problem, I think, is that education reforms have been rammed through against the will of the community. No one consulted the students, teachers, parents, and community members about their vision for public education. These are the folks who have attended the public schools, taught in them, and worked to improve them for decades. Rather than working with the community, policymakers acted with speed and precision in the months after the storm to take the schools and hand them over to private operators who run them for profit. It is insane for “reformers” to say they are acting in the best interest of the community, while at the same time ignoring the concerns and voices of the community they claim to be serving. I think this is duplicitous and arrogant, not to mention terribly undemocratic. Then again, the so-called education market is not about the well-being of students and parents or their input—it is about pocketbooks and purse strings. That’s a major problem.
RS: What is the fundamental problem with charter schools in New Orleans?
KB: Charter schools in New Orleans are businesses operated at the public expense without transparency or accountability. Because they are businesses, they care most about image control and the bottom line. They need to “look” good, even if this means refusing to admit or driving out the most challenging students, including students with disabilities who are “expensive” to serve and may bring down test scores. It is troubling how charter school advocates adopt the language of the civil rights movement to justify their agenda, while ignoring the fact that charter schools in New Orleans are deepening historic inequities, not resolving them. Again, it’s all about image.
RS: Reformers argue that using the business model is not only the right approach but has improved academic achievement in public schools in New Orleans. Is this true?
KB: I hear this often, but it’s not true. One problem with this claim relates to what I said before. Under the business model, charter schools have an incentive to act selectively. When they act selectively, it is problematic to say they have improved student performance. They are not serving the same students that traditional schools served. Right now, there is a federal civil rights lawsuit being waged by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Thousands of disabled children allege they have been denied admission and appropriate services by the city’s public schools, the majority of them charters. What is really telling, however, is that despite all of the cart wheels to generate a positive record of charter school performance, the state has rated 79 percent of charter schools in the Recovery School District (RSD) as “D” or “F”. How is this success? The so-called reformers say that things have “improved” under the business model and they like to talk about percentage increases, but the absolute numbers on charter school performance are dismal. There are also many problems with how reformers use statistics and how the state is constantly shifting the cut-off for school failure in ways that advantage charter schools. Under Act 35, the state used a School Performance Score (SPS) of 87.4 to define “failure” and enable the state-run RSD to take control of New Orleans public school. Once the schools were chartered, the state lowered the SPS cut-off. You can’t use one standard to say the traditional public schools are failing and another to say the charter schools have improved things. Any “upward trajectory” in performance isn’t the result of the business model, but has been legislatively contrived by manipulating the standard against which schools are judged.
RS: In your past writings you have described how education reforms have been an attack on the African-American community. Could you please explain your claim?
KB: First and foremost, charter school advocates ignore the history of White supremacy. The public schools in New Orleans had challenges before the storm because of racialized state neglect. How do charter schools remediate this history of racism? They don’t. Second, the city’s veteran teachers, most of them Black, were fired after the storm. The state then said there was a teacher shortage and signed a contract with Teach for America, whose recruits are generally transient, inexperienced, and White. This move disenfranchised Black teachers and also harmed Black students by denying them qualified teachers who have taught and lived for years in the community. Third, charter schools are being operated and governed without the input of the Black community. Local folks often can’t get charter school applications approved. They don’t sit on charter school boards. And the locally elected school board no longer controls the majority of schools in New Orleans. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) rules from Baton Rouge. Fourth, master planners placed monies for rebuilding schools in a general fund and did not allocate them in ways that are racially and geographically equitable. Many Black working-class neighborhoods downtown do not have public schools now; most have been rebuilt uptown. There appears to be a concerted effort to destroy Black neighborhoods by depriving them of the resources needed to rebuild and thrive.
RS: What message would you give to communities considering the New Orleans education reform model, including use of charter schools and state control?
KB: Do not follow the New Orleans model! It is a model for the criminal dispossession of Black communities. We need to build something from the ground up—a model that provides resources for successful educational programs that are indigenous to communities. We should not allow businesses to run the schools that our children attend or assume that the interests of White entrepreneurs are the same as those of Black working-class families in New Orleans or other cities across this nation. Consumers beware.
Kristen Buras, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of educational policy studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta and a native of New Orleans. She is also the cofounder, lead researcher, and director of the New Orleans-based Urban South Grassroots Research Collective for Public Education.