10 Years After Katrina Public Education Remains in Peril in New Orleans
Very recently, members of the New Orleans Tribune staff were contacted by a parent who was quite frankly is at her wit’s end regarding the treatment she and her son have been receiving at a local charter school—this one operated under the control of the Orleans Parish School Board.
She complained of constant and unreasonable discipline actions taken against her third-grade child for what she considered were, at least at times, frivolous infractions. The latest, she says, was a notice of expulsion made by telephone—no documentation detailing a reason, no paperwork outlining her and her son’s right to appeal. Just a phone call.
To top it off, she makes inquiries to the school to get to the bottom of what is going on; and before she gets any useful response, her son had been “expelled” for more than a week. Finally, the response: she gets a phone call on a Tuesday from a school official informing her that her son was allowed to return the school the day before.
We were glad to listen to her story and to do a little questioning and investigating of our own as it fit right in with our continued focus on the so-called education reform movement that has swept over New Orleans like a tsunami. To be sure, we have been taking note of it all—the financial improprieties, the uneven discipline policies that appear more like a free for all designed to help these schools cherry pick students, the continued academic failures despite veiled boasts to the contrary.
Anyway, this parent is like so many other New Orleanians—a single, working parent who certainly cares about her child and his education, but whose job does not afford her the luxury of taking off at a moment’s notice every time the phone rings. We believe she wants what is best for her son, but has for some time now been resigned to work within the system as it currently exists. For several years now, that has meant applying for admission to one of the city’s schools (all but six public schools in New Orleans are charters school) through the One-App process used by both the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board. And unless your child manages to gain entry into one of the half dozen OPSB direct-run schools, that has meant dealing with the individual rules and regulations of a charter school campus.
For many parents in the city, it’s just easier to do whatever the school says to do, to take the word of its principal or CEO or dean of students at every turn, to go along, to get along, because well, what are the alternatives. Honestly, where is the choice, really? And we have heard that some of these charter school folk are bold enough to say that if a parent doesn’t like how they run their school, they can just remove their kids. Let’s tell the truth and shame the devil. Parents aren’t picking schools. Schools are picking students.
And this has gone on since the beginning of this takeover. Meanwhile, many of our elected officials and community leaders have sat in silence. Others were complicit as our schools were co-opted, buildings hijacked, public monies misappropriated, and more importantly while our children have been treated like lab rats—the subjects of some botched experiment, to be sure.
We have even questioned why so many parents have been so acquiescent for so long.
But on this day, this parent was not. She didn’t know what to do about her situation, but she couldn’t take any more of what her son’s school had been dishing out.
She was tired, for sure. But not the kind of tired that forces you to rest. No, she was the brand of tired that makes you want to fight. She was sick and tired.
How refreshing was that. For nearly 10 years, we have been hoping, praying and calling on local school parents to stand up and fight, to raise their individual voices over and again until a collective cry was heard so loudly and clearly that something had to change. And we know that many have. Parents like Angelina Elder come to mind. She repeatedly spoke out regarding concerns at John McDonogh High School, so much so that she says the charter school operator tried to ban her from the building.
Still, it was nice to hear this one parent whose will to fight has been awakened. She says that she refuses to take another “meeting” with officials at her son’s school until she has contacted an attorney.
We don’t know all of the details of her concerns, whether she has legal case or just needs some advice. It’s just nice to hear someone talk about fighting.
And we know that we are right. We are supposed to be fighting. Every time we read a headline that tells that the RSD has wasted tens of millions on construction oversight; or learn that when the usually-dogged inspector general can’t get RSD officials to cooperate with him, he just abandons the contract to monitor school construction, turn his head and walk away; every time we hear about the millions in lost and stolen school property under the RSD’s watch; every time we hear the word “corruption” dusted off and bandied about to refer to every misstep of a Black elected official so that it can be held up as the reason why the governance of schools should not be returned to OPSB, but can’t seem to recall a wail or even a whimper decrying the egregious practice of giving these independent, quasi-private entities (yes, we mean charter operators and their hand-picked boards) control over public money even after we learned that boards have approved six-figure salaries for grade-level principals in grades where there were barely a dozen students enrolled, and a Kipp charter school employee straight-up embezzled (yes, stole) 14 times the amount Ira Thomas is alleged to have taken as a so-called bribe; every time we check the state’s accountability report and note that not a single RSD school has earned an “A”—not in 10 years; and every time we realize and that it has more schools earning Ds and Fs combined than all other grades, WE MSUT FIGHT.
Of course, we understand why fighting is not always the easy thing to do. We get that the pressures of life—maintaining a job, keeping a roof over your family’s head, food on the table and clothes on their back—often take center stage. And let’s face it, particularly in the Black community, there has always been the longstanding view of the schoolhouse as an extension of the community—a place parents can count on their children being educated as well nurtured and protected. There was a time when you could trust that if your child’s school called and told you Little Johnny was acting up, it was because he was actually acting up; and not because he failed to walk in a straight line with arms placed squarely at his sides or his finger across his lips.
It would be one thing if the oppressive guidelines employed by some of these schools were producing results. But how dare you treat school children as if they are in boot camp—or worse, prison, and on top of that, fail to provide them with the quality educational opportunities they deserve—even by this state’s standards.
Just as this parent has given us some hope, we are also buoyed by the efforts of Concerned Citizens for Quality Public Education. This collaborative has taken a proactive stance in demanding real change in our schools. And they have rightfully placed the blame at the feet of those most responsible for the wholesale takeover of our schools, elected officials at all levels, but especially those state lawmakers who have voted over and again in favor of the legislation that amended the standards, dismantled and undermined local control, paving the way for privatization. It is so refreshing to hear others talk about the notions of accountability, about holding to the fire the feet of those politicians who were elected to represent the needs of this community.
And we love, love, love what has taken place surrounding John McDonogh High School. A local parent, represented by her attorneys and supported by the John McDonogh High School Steering Committee, has successfully staved off an attempt to name a new charter operator at the school. As of press time, a hearing in Civil District Court to make a temporary restraining order permanent is pending. We anxiously await the outcome.
We laud the work of Justice & Beyond. Their regular meetings have kept a broad-base of citizens and community leaders informed about public education and many other important issues facing our community. Meanwhile, state Rep. Joe Bouie has been attentive and responsive to the real needs of his constituents as it relates to the urgency of creating real quality, equity and true representation in public education.
We are inspired by Dr. Charles Hatfield and Dr. Barbara Ferguson of Research on Reforms as they continue their fight to the public so that their organization and others can independently examine these reform efforts.
Finally, when we watch those 7,500 teachers who were wrongfully terminated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and who won their battle in state district court but were knocked down by the state Supreme Court, forge ahead with plans to take their case to the highest court in the land, we get even more motivated. Their attorney Willie Zanders recently released his application to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. If anything, these teachers were the first to fight; and the fact they have not given up the fight, gives us hope.
So when we look at what has taken place in New Orleans as it relates to public education and ask “What Are We Going To Do?,” our question is not posed in a defeated tone.
No doubt in 10 years, we have felt overwhelmed, but never overpowered. And if we all work together, we believe we will overcome.
“What Are We Going to Do?” is instead a rallying cry.
What Are We Going to Do?
And KEEP FIGHTING!