by Dr. Raynard Sanders

On May 25, 2020, America witnessed the horrific murder of George Floyd under the knee by a Minneapolis Police Officer. While this kind of police brutality and murder of Black men occurs periodically, Floyd’s murder galvanized millions of Americans and citizens around the world to take to the streets and demand justice. The national and global response to this killing of a Black man in America at the hands of police is unprecedented. In a Washington Post article, the late Congressman and Civil Rights activist John Lewis stated that he was “inspired” to see thousands of people in the United States and around the world peacefully protesting against police violence. He went on to say, after viewing the Black Lives Matter mural on 16th Street in Washington D.C. shortly before he transitioned, “It was so moving and so gratifying to see people from all over America and all over the world saying through their action, I can do something, I can say something.”

In a recent article from The Pew Research Center, two-thirds of U.S. adults say they support the movement, with 38 percent saying they strongly support it. This sentiment is particularly strong among Black Americans, with additional majorities of White (60 percent), Hispanic (77 percent) and Asian (75 percent) Americans expressing at least some support.  These demonstrations, most of which under the banner of Black Lives Matter, have gotten widespread support across the country from not only the White Community, but also from the corporate community. Many of the large tech companies in the U.S. have donated substantial sums to the cause; Google has committed $12 million; Facebook and Amazon are donating $10 million to various groups that fight against racial injustice. Apple is pledging a whopping $100 million for a new Racial Equity and Justice Initiative that will, “challenge the systemic barriers to opportunity and dignity that exist for communities of color, particularly for the Black community.” Walmart announced that it will contribute $100 million over five years to create a new center for racial equity. Target announced a $10 million commitment in an effort to advance social justice through supporting partners like the National Urban League and the African American Leadership Forum. Professional sports have also stepped up, the National Football League committed to $250 million over a ten-year period to social justice efforts that battle against the ongoing and historic injustices faced by African-Americans. In the National Basketball Association, the Black Lives Matter slogan has been painted on home basketball courts across the league. And Major League Baseball committed over $1 million to organizations in support of Black Lives Matter.

While these demonstrations have mostly focused on police brutality, demonstrators have also very forcefully voiced their long-time frustrations with a myriad of issues that have plagued the African-American community.  Activists have expressed other concerns around race as it relates to housing, unemployment and mass incarceration and the list goes on and on. One protestor who was arrested in Atlanta made these sentiments known to a CNN reporter: 

“This protest is not just about George Floyd. And when people are looking at these protesters – this rebellion that’s going on around the country – I hope they have some empathy because these people are going home. We are going home, Black folk are going home, brown folk are going home and drinking dirty water, going to poor schools, not having access to quality care and so this is bubbling over.” 

In New Orleans

In lock step with the rest of the country, New Orleans residents demonstrated in the days and weeks following Floyd’s deaths, seeking change on a number of fronts like their comrades around the country. Many of these activists have stated their long-time concerns with our public education system.  

For years parents and community members have been complaining about the so-called education reforms adopted after Hurricane Katrina that delivers public education through charter schools managed by unelected charter school boards. Many of the charter schools operate like private institutions frequently violating local, state and federal laws and are unaccountable to parents and the community. Additionally, for years charter schools in New Orleans have posted the lowest test scores in the state of Louisiana on state tests and the ACT. Researcher Michael Deshotels reported in 2019 that charter schools in New Orleans still rate in the bottom 20% among parish school systems and leads the state in scandals such as grade fixing and phony diplomas. Meanwhile, numerous charter schools are closed every year due to poor performance as per state policy. The solution to improving schools from the Orleans Parish School Board  is to give the school to another charter operator. After almost 15 years, it has become clearly apparent that we‘re not going to charter our way to academic progress. The realities are that by and large the only charter schools that are successful are the ones that have academic admission requirements that were magnet schools pre-Hurricane Katrina, and newly developed charter schools that either have an admission requirement or some condition on admission.  Most of charter schools in New Orleans are poorly performing academically and have been that way since Hurricane Katrina. Meanwhile, the charter schools that perform well academically are those where the majority of White students in the district attend, leaving the remaining poorly performing schools to mostly poor and African American students.   

Also, activists have bemoaned the fact that there are no more neighborhood schools and that students are not allowed to attend the school across the street from their homes. With that, students travel up to 90 minutes to and from school daily on many un-air-conditioned buses. Students are assigned to schools in New Orleans through a complicated computerized student enrollment system (OneApp) that places students in schools across the city. The pro charter school advocates proudly claim that the OneApp gives every student the choice to go to any school in the school district and they are not stuck in those poorly performing neighborhood schools. These advocates claim that New Orleans is the only school district in the country where every student has “school choice”! Despite the success lauded by school officials, many parents say that the system never gives them their choice. Parents state that the OneApp system ignores requests for siblings to go to the same school as many families have two or three children all going to different schools. There are also concerns that the OneApp ignores the needs of special needs children. Students with special needs are being sent to schools that don’t offer required special needs services for their child. But probably the number one complaint against the OneApp is that parents can very rarely choose the school across the street or around the corner. Ashana Bigard, parent and education advocate states that the OneApp system also appears to place students in schools based on family income.  

It also should be noted that the OneApp student enrollment system has created a school district where the majority of white students (who are in minority in the student population) attend the better performing charter schools, while the remaining student population, mostly African American, are regulated to the poor performing charter schools that largely makeup the school district. Critics say that our system is more segregated now than before Hurricane Katrina. They point to Lusher Charter School which has less than a 28 percent African-American student population in a school district that is over 85 percent  African American. 

The question is that in light of the national reckoning and the long-time issues around race and inequity that plague the public schools, will policymakers finally commit to seriously addressing the historic inequitable public education system that has been cemented with the recent education reforms forced down the throats of citizens post Hurricane Katrina. 

Recently we have witnessed demonstrations of students and alumni from Lusher Charter School that called for a school name change along with “instituting a minority student support systems, adapting student and staff recruitment practices, and mandating anti-racist training for staff and volunteers.” 

Also, in the midst the Covid19 pandemic, it was reported that that teachers and community members recently asked the Orleans Parish School Board to require stronger protections for school staff and students at its nearly 80 independent charter schools. Many critics were looking for more of a mandate from Orleans Parish School Board. But for many people, it’s not clear what the board can do, given the decentralized nature of the NOLA Public Schools’ nearly all-charter district. 

The realities are that to address any issue, the Orleans Parish School Board is restricted by a law that limits their authority over charter schools. In 2016, in their quest to privatize public education, charter school advocates convinced the Louisiana Legislature to pass ACT 91 which gives the charter school boards the absolute authority over school policy and daily practices to the unelected charter school boards:

“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.”

In this legislation, the Orleans Parish School Board has clear authority over charters only during the renewal or removal of their contract as daily operations and policy is outside of their control by law. So the folks who have the authority to make decisions regarding the protections of teachers and staff during the pandemic are the un-elected charter school boards. These un-elected boards have had that kind of authority since 2006; however, it was codified into law in 2016. The unelected charter school boards are in total control of public education. 

We’re one of the few, if not the only school district in the country, where the duly elected school board has no control over the daily business of its public schools. This legislation, ACT 91,  has effectively removed democracy in New Orleans and has literally taken the public out of the public education process. Our vote essentially doesn’t count! 

I believe it’s clear that we need to rethink and re-direct our present course of public education and directly address the few things mentioned in this article along with many more injustices. It is also important that this rethinking and re-direction include the community as a whole and not let the powerful folks who created this failed system to once again dictate the direction of public education and create another inequitable school system under the guise of “school reform”. They have historically failed this community we can’t afford to allow them to do it again. 

Dr. Raynard Sanders is an educational consultant and researcher, he has written numerous articles on education equity and the privatization of public education. He recently authored two books The Coup D’état of the New Orleans Public School District: Money, Power and the Illegal Takeover of a Public School System and Twenty First Century Jim Crow Schools: The Impact of Charter Schools on Public Education. Dr. Sanders also hosts “The New Orleans Imperative,” a weekly radio show that focuses on public education in New Orleans on WHIV FM (102.3) on Mondays at 1:00 PM CST.

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