by Dr. Kristen Buras and Dr. Raynard Sanders
With public schools in Orleans Parish once run by the RSD “returning” to the Orleans Parish School Board in July 2018 nearly 13 years after they were ripped from local control, now is a good time to remind everyone exactly who has been in charge of public education here and with what results.
In New Orleans, we’re used to masking. It’s a tradition. During Mardi Gras, elaborate costumes are worn by crew members and parade-goers alike. But another kind of masking has been going on and continues to go on—and unlike Mardi Gras festivities, it has real and dire consequences. This “masking” has to do with covering up what has been the colossal failure of the state-run Recovery School District (RSD) and mass chartering of New Orleans public schools since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Early on, masking required the state to perpetually shift the cut-point that defined school failure. In November 2005 the legislature passed ACT 35, which raised the bar, multiplied the number of “failing” schools, and enabled state takeover of most public schools in New Orleans. Subsequently, after chartering schools, the bar was lowered to manufacture charter school success.
Later, of course, there were other fictions, including the assertion that charter schools were increasing achievement at the very same time they were cream skimming. That is, charters recruited and retained the students most likely to comply and/or perform academically, while excluding special needs students and violating their civil rights. This, of course, prompted a class action lawsuit by Southern Poverty Law Center.
What is more, the public was told charter schools in the RSD were graduating higher numbers of students. All the while students were being pushed out at indefensibly high rates and sometimes coded as out-of-state transfers to avoid the effects this would have on the calculation of graduation rates and ultimately the School Performance Score (SPS) that denote success or failure. Only in a fantasyland could institutions with such practices brand themselves as equitable.
It appears, however, that we have entered a new phase of deception. The state-run RSD, which was responsible for post-Katrina disempowerment of the locally elected Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) and chartering of the public schools it came to control, is now being expunged from history.
A prime example is a recent report issued by the Urban League of Louisiana (Urban League of Louisiana) titled, “Advancing Educational Equity in New Orleans Public Schools.” The report focuses on the so-called “unification” of schools under the OPSB. Notably, the RSD is nowhere to be found in the report. In fact, the entire Urban League of Louisiana report centers on various educational equity issues that it says OPSB needs to address, without ever attributing these inequities to the practices and policies of the RSD over the past 13 years.
One learns on the report’s first page that Urban League of Louisiana is a key partner in the unification process that returns public schools in New Orleans, which have been under the control of the RSD since November 2005, back to the control of the OPSB in July 2018. It is interesting that the Urban League of Louisiana wants to hold OPSB accountable in 2018 for the promise to provide a quality education to all students and did not address key educational equity issues when the majority of public schools were under the control of the RSD from 2005-2018. Opportunities to hold the RSD (and Louisiana Department of Education) accountable were endless, considering the well-documented failure of the schools under their jurisdiction.
The Little Dog That Can’t Be Found
The Urban League of Louisiana report includes many troubling examples of historical erasure. In reading it, we are reminded of the fantastic songs that children sing—in this case, “Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?” The lyrics go like this:
Oh where, oh where
Has my little dog gone?
Oh where, oh where can he be?
With his ears cut short
And his tail cut long
Oh where, oh where can he be?
I last saw him by the bulldozer
Playing and running around
But I just can’t see him there anymore He just can’t seem to be found . . .
Much like the little dog, the RSD has disappeared.
The report opens by stating that a “central priority” of the Urban League of Louisiana is educational equity. A major concern is “the equitable impact of policies and interventions on students.” It goes on to emphasize that “Urban League of Louisiana is particularly interested in how children of color, students who are economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities, and English language learners are faring in New Orleans Public Schools.” One would assume, then, that there would be interest in assessing the impact of the RSD and its interventions on public education, but that little dog can’t seem to be found.
On the very first page of the report, a footnote is referenced (and then elaborated on page 36) which specifies that “New Orleans Public Schools or NOPS is used to describe all public schools, both direct run and charter, that are or will be under the auspices of the Orleans Parish School Board.” In other words, schools that until only recently were under the RSD as well as schools that remained under the RSD when the report was written are nonetheless considered, without any qualification, as OPSB schools. To be clear, this includes the problems and inequities of schools that were long part of the RSD. These, too, now apparently belong to OPSB.
The Urban League of Louisiana report focuses on key factors such as student outcomes, school choice and enrollment, high level curriculum, teacher quality, funding, and discipline. It becomes clear that the analysis did not look at these issues through an historical lens, accounting for the influence of the past on the present. More specifically, it fails to consider the culpability of the RSD and privately managed charter schools in producing the inequities it asks OPSB to address.
Take, for example, the report’s discussion of student outcomes. It begins, “Disparities in academic performance are significant in NOPS.” An informational table shows 2016-2017 ACT composite scores nationally, then in Louisiana, NOPS, and finally subgroups within NOPS. The average composite nationwide score is 21 on a scale of 0 to 30, compared to Louisiana’s 19.6. NOPS as a whole is 18.9, with African American students at 17.8, white students at 28.5, poor students at 17.8, and students with disabilities at 14.7.
Notably, NOPS did not control most of the high schools being reported on. Yet, it is held accountable for ACT scores at those schools. Most of the charter high schools responsible for the education of African American students and other students of color were under the auspices of the RSD. Perhaps most perplexing, the report never mentions that ACT scores in the RSD were so embarrassing that John White, Louisiana superintendent of education, withheld them from public view for nearly a year. More specifically, in 2014, the composite ACT score in the RSD was 15.7, with the RSD ranking 66 of 70 districts in Louisiana. Louisiana education blogger and teacher Mercedes Schneider exposed this farce, much to the chagrin of state officials.
The Urban League of Louisiana concludes the discussion of student outcomes by highlighting the economic impact of the achievement gap (or test score gap between students of color and white students). The report correctly asserts that academic indicators correlate with later income, employment, and college completion rates. Interestingly, the report underscores the importance of history, stating, “While the achievement gap can be used to explain some of the disparities in economic outcomes experienced by Black and Brown people in New Orleans, it is important to note that there are historic and contemporary forces that contribute.” Here again, past and present forces at play, such as the RSD, are not examined.
That’s just one of many examples where the RSD is let off the hook for its accumulative failures. Consider next the report’s commentary on school choice and enrollment. It, too, is an exercise in historical amnesia. “Do all students have a fair chance to access high quality schools?” queries the report. It continues: “The November 2017 release of school performance scores provides more information that raises new questions about the availability of high quality schools.” Accordingly, in 2017, only 18% of schools in New Orleans were rated “A” or “B,” while 35% were rated “C” and 40% were rated “D” or “F.” This “new data,” we are told, “highlights the challenge for OPSB to support struggling schools and improve the quality of school options.” New data? This isn’t new data. This data has been available for quite some time; it’s data that’s been widely circulated by those concerned about charter school inequities; it’s data that reflects RSD governance, not OPSB.
“The worst performing schools in New Orleans have higher concentrations of Black and Brown youth and the highest concentration of poverty in NOPS,” states the report. Further, “there are virtually no white students enrolled in ‘D’ or ‘F’ schools in NOPS.” Regarding the question of whether equitable access to high quality educational options exists, the Urban League of Louisiana proclaims the answer is a “resounding no.”
It follows by asking, “What is OPSB’s plan to expand its portfolio of schools to increase the number of high quality school options for children and families in New Orleans?” It likewise questions, “What strategies will OPSB implement to improve failing schools?” High quality education is of utmost importance. So is the improvement of failing schools. But weren’t these the precise issues the RSD was created to address? Here we are, a generation later, and they have not been resolved. Here we are, asking OPSB to right the ship even though it was kicked out of the captain’s seat more than a decade ago.
This brings us to another aspect of the report—teacher quality. Many readers will recall the mass firing of some 7,500 veteran teachers and school employees in NOPS right after Hurricane Katrina. Similarly, many will recall the wrongful termination lawsuit that was lodged on behalf of these educators and the alarming details that surfaced in court. Veteran teachers, a substantial portion of New Orleans’ black middle class, were terminated without due process and with devastating effects, as the RSD took over the vast majority of public schools once controlled by OPSB. Federal funds obtained by the Louisiana Department of Education to pay out-of-work teachers their salaries and benefits were instead appropriated to pay housing allowances and stipends to novice and inexperienced out-of-state teachers recruited by the RSD. To be sure, while many of the Tribune’s readers may remember this history, the Urban League of Louisiana seemingly does not.
Instead, the report—without any context—laments that “African American students and low-income students are more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers and out-of-field teachers (i.e., teachers who do not have a degree or certification in the discipline in which they are teaching) than their White and more affluent peers.” Why? The strategic project to undermine veteran teachers and public schools, while fueling edu-businesses, such as Teach for America, which supplied the so-called new talent that ultimately failed our children, is left unexamined.
But the problem doesn’t stop there. Not only is the history of producing this reality ignored. The Urban League of Louisiana simultaneously acknowledges that “since the majority of NOPS are charter schools, they have autonomy with regards to personnel decisions.” Moreover, after affirming that “teachers are the most significant, school-based factor influencing student achievement,” the report takes no stand on the fact that the state-run RSD created the teacher quality problem or that the state has ensured, through ACT 91, that the problem will continue without the capacity for OPSB to resolve it.
The OPSB Cannot Act
Under ACT 91, OPSB is responsible for the schools in its jurisdiction, but it has virtually no control over them. The legislation that defines the terms under which schools will return to “local control” indicates the following:
Unless mutually agreed to by both the charter school’s governing authority and the local school board pursuant to a duly authorized resolution adopted by each governing entity, the local school board shall not impede the operational autonomy of a charter school under its jurisdiction in the areas of school programming, instruction, curriculum, materials and texts, yearly school calendars and daily schedules, hiring and firing of personnel, employee performance management and evaluation, terms and conditions of employment, teacher or administrator certification, salaries and benefits, retirement, collective bargaining, budgeting, purchasing, procurement, and contracting for services other than capital repairs and facilities construction.
Despite acknowledging the OPSB’s limitations and lack of authority, Urban League of Louisiana still concludes that the daily operation of public schools is somehow the responsibility of the OPSB who they want to hold accountable. They write that OPSB “faces a unique set of challenges, given that oversight is limited with regard to the day-to-day functions of autonomous schools.” On one hand, they acknowledge that educational equity issues “are systemic.” On the other hand, they uncritically accept that “strategies to address these inequities are often school-based (or CMO [Charter Management Organization]-based) within a decentralized system.” Nonetheless, Urban League of Louisiana proclaims, “OPSB should not absolve itself from leading in those areas where its ability to leverage large-scale change and impact can be made.” In other words, OPSB will be held to account for the challenges of institutions it did not and cannot govern.
In the end, the Urban League of Louisiana report ignores that ACT 91 gives full autonomy to the self-appointed charter school boards and literally removes democracy from the public education process by permanently limiting the authority of the locally elected OPSB. The masking and misleading of the public continued when Urban League of Louisiana issued a public announcement on May 18, 2018 calling OPSB’s endorsement of policies aligned with the Charter School Accountability Framework a “final milestone” in the unification process that will be completed on July 1, 2018. In making this announcement Urban League of Louisiana stated that the “Framework allows the OPSB to hold charter schools to rigorous and transparent standards that promote excellence and provide incentives for continued progress towards outcomes that best serve students.” In reading the announcement, much like the report, one would think that ACT 91 gives the OPSB full authority over the policies and practices of charter schools, which is simply not true!
If the Urban League of Louisiana wanted to address the key equity issues in its report, it would either want to hold the unelected charter school boards accountable or take issue with the inherent problems of ACT 91. Recommending the removal of ACT 91 would be one obvious part of the solution, given that it purposefully gutted democracy from the public education process by removing all effective authority from the locally elected OPSB.
A New Orleans native, Dr. Kristen Buras is an associate professor in Educational Policy Studies at Georgia State University. She is the author of Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance, which documents the effects of charter school reform in New Orleans. Buras works closely with community groups to organize around racial and educational equity in New Orleans.
Dr. Raynard Sanders is an educational consultant, researcher, and a former principal and college administrator. He has written numerous articles on school reform, educational equity and the privatization of public education. He has also authored two books on the privatization of public schools, The Coup D’etat of the New Orleans Public Schools: Money, Power and the Illegal Takeover of a Public School System and Twenty- First Century Jim Crow Schools: the Impact of Charter on Public Education. Dr. Sanders also hosts, The New Orleans Imperative, a weekly radio show that focuses on public education on Mondays on WHIV 102.3 FM at 1p.m. CST.