It’s been a tough several months on the local public education front: Let’s count the ways:
First, Act 543, which captures local sales and property tax dollars for the use of the Recovery School District and charter school boards that do not answer to the voters and tax payers of New Orleans, passed easily late last year with the help of our local elected officials and leaders.
Then, advocates, community members, alumni and friends of John McDonogh High School were dealt a death blow when the historic school site was recently given to Bricolage Academy, a charter school that has close ties with a number of the key players and organizations in the reform movement and that has received significant financial backing from the Walton Foundation and New Schools for New Orleans.
With our offices across the street from John McDonogh, we have watched in disgust as workers have been sent in recent weeks to clean and clear the school. We assume that it is in preparation of Bricolage’s eventual move to the facility. Perhaps they will get that $35 million renovation John White promised John McDonogh students and staff more than four years ago when he announced that the only way their school could get renovated was if they were taken over by a charter and then reneged on the promise
Next, state Rep. Joe Bouie’s HB 166, which would have returned improved schools to local elected governance (consistent with the intent of the original law) failed 31-60.
If that were not enough, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of wrongfully fired Orleans Parish public school employees, including more than 7,000 mostly Black, veteran teachers who were the backbone of the city’s middle class.
FOR THE RECORD
We could go on with the list of setbacks as it relates to the farce that is being tossed around as education reform. It seems the more we and others aligned against this fake reform—people like veteran educators Raynard Sanders and Lee Barrios, parent advocate Karran Harper Royal, community advocates Brenda Square and teacher and coach Frank Buckley, researchers Barbara Ferguson and Charles Hatfield, education bloggers Mercedes Schneider and Diane Ravitch, and organizations like Justice and Beyond—fight, the more the ground so-called reformers gain.
The truth is, we’ve been feeling like conceding lately.
Why do we persist?
How’s it going to help?
What’s going to change?
This thing appears to be a run-a-way train.
And we can’t stop it.
We have said all of this and more in the past several weeks and months. Yet, here we are again—devoting an entire issue to sharing the truth about the post-Katrina education reform that is hurting local students, marginalizing parents and disenfranchising voters and taxpayers and that will hurt us for generations to come.
Why do we keep doing this to ourselves? Surely, we could find other uses for our newsprint and ink.
Well, we do not ever want it to be said that The New Orleans Tribune sat in silence and said nothing while this travesty took place. That’s not what we do or who we are. You expect more from us. We demand more of ourselves. So we would find no joy in saying “we told you so.” We would rather say “so glad we stopped that from happening.” And we hope that every time we raise our voice, others will take heed and join us in a battle we know is righteous. As such, we will go on record now and every chance we get. We will call out the calamity for what it is. We cannot allow defeat to silence our voice. We will not concede—not with the future of our children at stake. The education of children, especially traditionally under-served African-American children, should be no one’s experiment—or meal ticket.
We’re doing it for the record. See, maybe in 20 years, one of the architects of this so-called reform will finally have a crisis of conscience and admit that they were wrong. Maybe it will be John White or Paul Pastorek. Maybe Leslie Jacobs will see the error of her ways. Maybe.
It would be a move reminiscent of President Bill Clinton’s recent acknowledgment of the fact that it was his criminal justice policies that caused and contributed to the mass incarceration problem. Maybe, just maybe in 20 years, President Obama and his education chief Arne Duncan will apologize and admit that the policies they set in motion were deleterious, that the Race to the Top was nothing more than running in place or worse—running backwards
But as it was with Clinton’s mea culpa, even if President Obama and Secretary Duncan apologized in two decades, it would be 20 years too late.
FOR THE RECORD: ISN’T’ IT IRONIC
On the same day that scores of local residents boarded a pair of buses headed to Baton Rouge to support HB 166 as it was taken up by the state House of Representatives, the American Federation for Children was in town for a two-day policy conference. They were here, touting the success of charter schools, talking up the need for reform in education and talking about the parents and children—especially urban parents and children (code for Black, brown and poor) who benefit the most from all of this so-called progress.
We couldn’t help but notice the irony of it all.
We looked at the faces of the people at the AFC summit there to glean talking points to shape and share the education reform narrative in ways that could change policy and minds; and we noted the lack of brown and Black folk. It was striking. Of course, there were a handful, just a handful and likely hand-picked.
So where were all those urban parents and children who benefit so greatly from all of the choice and success that charter schools offer? The AFC has a policy summit in New Orleans—the home of the nation’s only all-charter school district; and not one local parent was in the room when a panel about “transforming” New Orleans was being held. We are told that some had actually been turned away.
We had just left a bunch of urban, Black folk concerned about public education in New Orleans. Of course this group had not been invited to the AFC conference. They were boarding buses at Christian Unity Baptist Church to go to Baton Rouge to support HB 166, the bill authored by state Rep. Joe Bouie.
FOR THE RECORD: ABOUT HB 166
HB 166 would have done one thing and one thing only—return successful schools (their buildings and fiscal resources) from the Recovery School District to local, elected governance. To be sure, not one of those schools would have had to convert from a charter to a direct-run school had Rep. Bouie’s bill passed. The only thing that would have changed was that instead of being under the umbrella of the Recovery School District, schools no longer deemed “failing” would return to the Orleans Parish School Board. That’s it.
As such, the disheartening failure of the state House to pass HB 166, to us, proves yet again that the so-called reform that has taken place here has had little to do with improving academic performance or increasing choice and academic opportunity for the children and families that need it most. Instead, it has everything to do with money and power. And HB 166, simply put, threatened to diminish the control of the power brokers and education reform architects.
For the record, the organizations and individuals that so arrogantly seized our schools and empowered themselves to drive the education “reform” agenda do not take us by surprise. We expect as much from Leslie Jacobs and Sarah Usdin, from Paul Pastorek and John White. However, we have been astonished and saddened to watch as institutions and individuals trusted by our community are all too happy to sign on to this sham. They have done so for their own reasons we suppose. Some of them are our friends, and we know they are smart enough to know what’s really taking place. We can agree to disagree; still, we wonder about their motivations. Don’t they know they are just pawns in a game? Don’t they know the reformers have a play book and it tells them to turn to “trusted community organizations” so that they can “play a critical role in effective community engagement.”
Take a look in a mirror, friends, and ask yourself if you are the “trusted community organization” picked by the reformers to carry the Kool-Aid to your community.
If some schools have recovered, then why keep them under the control of the Recovery School District? There is not a single charter school operating in New Orleans that could not operate under the elected Orleans Parish School Board, which currently oversees 12 charters and six direct-run schools. In fact, why is the RSD still in New Orleans?
Well, we have answered that very question more times than we can count, right here on the pages of this publication. We’ve grown tired. We are aggravated. Actually, these days we are downright incensed. But we will answer once again.
FOR THE RECORD: THEY DON’T REALLY CARE ABOUT US
The people, entities, organizations and institutions driving the education reform movement, especially here in New Orleans, don’t care whether our children receive a quality public education. Neither they nor their children attend or have attended public school in New Orleans. It is not about choice or change or charters. If it were really about choice for parents and children, why is a computer program matching students with schools? Sounds more like school chance and happenstance than school choice to us.
Still, they are happy to use that “choice” mantra so long as it means billions of dollars will continue to flow through their non-profit organizations and their new-fangled foundations. They will continue to use that mantra so long as it means contracts for consulting or school construction or Common Core-aligned text books and testing services for their big corporate buddies. They will continue to use that mantra so long as they can hand out cushy jobs to cronies and allies. And the cronies and allies are happy to go along as long as they are taken care of.
For the record, we are not against change or charters. We do not oppose education reform. There are successful models where traditional public schools co-exist with charters to offer students and their parents quality educational opportunities. In fact, the so-called reformers are right. Katrina was the biggest opportunity. It wiped the slate clean. It offered us the rare chance to get it right. We could have built first-rate facilities in neighborhoods across this city. We could have staffed them with top-notch education administrators, veteran teachers and new ones, too, trained and prepared to contribute to the field. We could have had real change. It’s just that what has happened in New Orleans in the 10 years since Katrina has not been about any of those things.
Instead, education reform, pseudo school choice, and the proliferation of charter schools have merely been one of the vehicles co-opted to perform an entirely different agenda—gain control of an entire city and every system that operates within its jurisdiction. Those who fled New Orleans decades ago on the heels of integration want the neighborhoods back. So they tore down public housing. They want seats of political power back; and they are gaining. The schools—or rather control of schools—are a major piece of that puzzle. This so-called reform is a spoke in a wheel that has been turning now for decades. Katrina was the catalyst that allowed these social engineers and profiteers to hasten their plans. If they have to pretend like they care about where our children learn to gain access to and control of money, land, facilities and dominance, it is a small price to pay. If their gain is on the backs of students, parents and taxpayers, so be it. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that there is money—big money—tied up in this reform movement. And if they can control that as well, all the better. Some of the biggest players in this game are about as concerned about the education of poor Black children in New Orleans as they are about a swarming fly.
Come on, let’s get real. The hypocrisy of it all is actually unsettling. One of the biggest national players in this reform folly is the Walton Foundation. The Walton Foundation has funneled nearly $180 million in grant money in three years (2011, 2012, and 2013) to national and local organizations in the name of education reform. In 2014, alone, the Walton Foundation directed more than $2.6 million to local groups, such as New Schools for New Orleans, the Louisiana affiliate of Stand for Children, the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, Orleans Public Education Network, 4.0 Schools and the Black Alliance for Educational Options.
Now, it’s the Walton family’s money; and they are free to donate it as they please. But just for a second let’s consider that research clearly shows a correlation between family income and a child’s academic achievement and that the widening achievement gap is in great measure associated the widening wealth gap. Given those points, one would think that if the Waltons were so concerned with transforming educational outcomes for America’s children they would not have to be shamed into giving their own low-wage earning employees a pay raise. The wages earned by many Wal-Mart employees are so low that their workers often rely on food stamps, Section 8 housing assistance, and state-funded healthcare programs.
FOR THE RECORD: MYTHS AND LIES OF THE TRANSFORMATION
Truth is that we would be okay with it all—with the foundations for education for this . . . and the new schools for that . . . if public education in New Orleans was actually improving.
But for the record: The myth that this new system of education is more accountable and successful than before is just that—a MYTH. Better still, it is a pack of lies. Don’t be fooled when the reform advocates tout the successes of schools like Lusher and Ben Franklin. First of all, these are not RSD campuses. They were not taken over by the state. These schools, though they have now been chartered, are OPSB schools. More importantly, they were the crown jewels, the top performers in local public education long before the storm. There was no transformation at these campuses. They have been the consistent successes. They were the schools parents and education advocates pointed to years ago and asked “hey, wait…why can’t you make all of our schools like them.”
So now that we have that straight, here’s the reality of the mythical miracle. Fifty-seven (57) RSD-New Orleans schools have school performance scores and letter grades for the 2013-2014 school year. And they don’t look so miraculous. There are six (6) Ts or schools in transition, meaning they have been assumed by a new charter operator and are being given a grace period before their academic performance is measured. We have written before about this perpetual state of transition that can exist as the RSD decides to kick out one charter operator for another over and again.
There are 20 Cs. The last time we checked Cs were nothing to write home about. They indicate a performance level that is acceptable—not exceptional. They represent mediocrity, which is one reason it is mind-boggling that as we understand it FirstLine Schools is in line to get more get more campuses, despite the poor showing of the schools already under its control (four Cs and one F).
There are combined 24 Ds and Fs. In other words 24 schools are academically inadequate. Twenty-four schools are failing to meet the state’s minimum academic standard.
Yes, there are a few Bs—seven (7) to be exact. Meanwhile, not a single charter school in the RSD-New Orleans has earned an A. And with the state’s fluctuating definition of a “failing” school, even a few of the Bs are suspect.
Recall that in 2005, the state legislator raised the minimum SPS score to 87.4 in order to takeover local schools. The minimum SPS has since been lowered to accommodate the reform’s failure. But based on the same standard used to take over more than 100 schools in New Orleans nearly 10 years ago, three (3) of the schools with B letter grades would actually be considered failing. Just so we are clear and for the record, three (3) RSD schools that have earned Bs in the current performance rankings would have been taken over by the state for those same SPS score 10 years ago.
If this reform was really about hope for our children, there would be no more RSD-New Orleans. Truth is the real miracle is that anyone is actually able to follow all of the shenanigans that have taken place in the name of education reform—raise the SPS score minimum; lower the SPS score minimum; plan to return improved schools to the local education agency after five years; don’t automatically return improved schools; give appointed charter boards the final say so on whether they return to elected control; charter every school under your jurisdiction; and if one or two schools ever decide to return, enforce the rules you have neglected for 10 years, yank their charter and shut them down.
More than 54 percent of the charter schools under RSD control are either failing or in transition. Another 35 percent are mediocre. If they were measured by the same standards used to take over the schools in Orleans Parish in 2005, the RSD would be forced to relinquish all but four campuses under its control. Again, just to be clear and for the record: if the RSD were judged by the same standards used to take control of schools in New Orleans 10 years ago, the RSD would be left with only four schools.
The fact that it actually continues to grow its power and control is what is miraculous.
Ah, but that is reform. What a joke.
Of course, it isn’t. Those SPS scores aren’t the digits that matter, though. No, no—they are not the numbers that the reformers care about. Here are the numbers that get them going 17.2 as in the more than $17.2 million the Reily Foundation gave to the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Greater New Orleans Education Foundation between 2010-2012. And while 53 is definitely a failing number in the state’s accountability system, it certainly is a passing score if we are talking about the nearly $53 million the Walton Foundation gave to the Charter School Growth Fund, Inc.
But let’s say we ignore the billions of dollars that have flooded this city in the name of education reform to be controlled by the hands of a few self-appointed elite and just focused on the mishandling and downright misuse of some of those funds.
According to media reports, the RSD has not been able to account for millions in state property. Charter school employees have stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars, which has been easy enough given the lack of oversight of these charter operators by the RSD and the state department of education. Of course, the RSD doesn’t want to oversee the charters. In fact, they refuse to be overseen themselves; and because of RSD officials’ refusal to cooperate with the New Orleans inspector general, that office walked away from its contract to oversee school construction. Despite the $35 million earmarked for John McDonogh High School’s renovation, the school was never renovated even after it was forced to take on a charter operation in order to get the rebuilding dollars as promised by then-RSD Supt. John White.
For sure, this transformation of New Orleans is about success and gain—just not for our students. RSD schools and this reform are failing us.
This reform ain’t done a thing. And yes, that is for the record.