Fighting for the Right to Learn: Report on Results of the Public Education Experiment in New Orleans Two Years After Katrina
New Orleans's Children Fighting for the Right to Learn
By Bill Quigley
t r u t h o u t | Report
Thursday 09 August 2007
(This is the first installment of a two-part analysis of the experiment going on in public education in New Orleans post-Katrina. To read Part II click here.)
"Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental ... The freedom to learn ... has been bought by bitter sacrifice. And whatever we may think of the curtailment of other civil rights, we should fight to the last ditch to keep open the right to learn." - W.E. B. DuBois, "The Freedom to Learn." (1949).
"Education is the property of no one. It belongs to the people as a whole. And if education is not given to the people, they will have to take it." - Che Guevara
"We wanted charter schools to open and take the majority of the students. That didn't happen, and now we have the responsibility of educating the 'leftover' children." - Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary School Member (2007)
There is a massive experiment being performed on thousands of primarily African American children in New Orleans. No one asked the permission of the children. No one asked permission of their parents. This experiment involves a fight for the education of children.
This is the experiment.
The First Half
Half of the nearly 30,000 children expected to enroll in the fall of 2007 in New Orleans public schools have been enrolled in special public schools, most called charter schools. These schools have been given tens of millions of dollars by the federal government in extra money, over and above their regular state and local money, to set up and operate. These special public schools are not open to every child and do not allow every student who wants to attend to enroll. Some charter schools have special selective academic criteria which allow them to exclude children in need of special academic help. Other charter schools have special admission policies and student and parental requirements which effectively screen out many children. The children in this half of the experiment are taught by accredited teachers in manageable size classes. There are no overcrowded classes because these charter schools have enrollment caps allowing them to turn away students. These schools also educate far fewer students with academic or emotional disabilities. Children in charter schools are in better facilities than the other half of the children. These schools are getting special grants from Laura Bush to rebuild their libraries and grants from other foundations to help them educate. These schools do educate some white children along with African-American children. These are public schools, but they are not available to all public school students.
The Other Half
The other half of public school students, over ten thousand children, have been assigned to a one-year-old experiment in public education run by the State of Louisiana called the "Recovery School District" (RSD) program. The education these children receive will be compared to the education received by the first half in the charter schools. These children are effectively what is called the "control group" of an experiment Ð those against whom the others will be evaluated.
The RSD schools have not been given millions of extra federal dollars to operate. The new RSD has inexperienced leadership. Many critical vacancies exist in their already-insufficient district-wide staff. Many of the teachers are uncertified. In fact, the RSD schools do not yet have enough teachers, even counting the uncertified, to start school in the fall of 2007. Some of the RSD school buildings scheduled to be used for the fall of 2007 have not yet been built.
In the first year of this experiment, the RSD had one security guard for every 37 students. Students at John McDonough High said their RSD school, which employed more guards than teachers, had a "prison atmosphere." In some schools, children spent long stretches of their school days in the gymnasium waiting for teachers to show up to teach them.
There is little academic or emotional counseling in the RSD schools. Children with special needs suffer from lack of qualified staff. College-prep math and science classes and language immersion are rarely offered. Classrooms keep filling up as new children return to New Orleans and are assigned to RSD schools.
Many of the RSD schools do not have working kitchens or water fountains. Bathroom facilities are scandalous. Teachers at one school report there are two bathrooms for the entire school - one for all the male students, faculty and staff and another for all the females in the building.
Danatus King, of the NAACP in New Orleans, said "What happened last year was a tragedy. Many of the city's children were denied an education last year because of a failure to plan on the part of the RSD."
Hardly any white children attend this half of the school experiment.
These are the public schools available to the rest of the public school students.
Who Started This Experiment?
After Katrina, groups in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Washington, DC saw an opportunity to radically restructure public education in New Orleans and turn many public schools into publicly funded charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded schools that have far more freedom to select the children they admit, more freedom in the way they operate, and more freedom in the hiring and firing of teachers.
This experiment has been controversial from the beginning.
Some people are very critical. According to a recent report on this experiment by New Orleans teachers, right after Katrina, "a well-organized and well-financed national network of charter school advocates hastened the conversion of public schools by waiving previous requirements." Without input from parents or teachers, these folks engaged in what the teachers called a "massive takeover experiment with the children of New Orleans at a time when most parents and students were widely dispersed in other parishes and states." See NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY: How the New Orleans Takeover Experiment Devalues Experienced Teachers," June 2007, (hereafter New Orleans Teachers Report) available at: http://www.aft.org/presscenter/releases/downloads/NoExperReport_07.pdf
Supporters like Governor Blanco hailed the experiment as "an opportunity to do something incredible." Others agreed. "We are using this as an opportunity to take what was one of the worst school systems around and create one of the best and most competitive school systems in America," said Walter Isaacson, vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. "This is an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild the school system the way it should be," says Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University. The Tulane Scott Cowen Institute and other supporters have authored their own report on the experiment, STATE OF PUBLIC EDUCATION IN NEW ORLEANS, June 2007, (hereafter the Cowen Report) available at: http://www.stateofnolaschools.org/NO_FINAL.pdf
How Government Created This Experiment
This experiment was started and approved while students and parents were not around to participate in the decision. Before Katrina, the process of creating a charter school was legally required to first have the approval of parents and teachers. Supporters of this experiment, many if not most of whom do not have children in public schools, repeatedly argue that this experiment creates "choice" for at least half the parents and students. The irony is that few parents had any choice at all in creating the experiment involving their children.
The very first public school converted to a charter was done on September 15, 2005, while almost all the city remained closed to residents. The school board did not even hold the meeting in New Orleans.
While President Bush may have been slow to react in other areas after the storm, he made a bold push right after Katrina to help convert public schools to charters.
On September 30, 2005, the US Department of Education pledged $20.9 million to Louisiana for post-Katrina charter schools. The federal government offered no comparable funding to reestablish traditional neighborhood or district schools.
In early October 2005, Governor Blanco issued an executive order waiving waived state laws that required faculty and parent approval to convert a regular public school to a charter school. The Orleans School Board then used this waiver to convert all 13 schools in the less-flooded Algiers community of New Orleans to charter schools without parent or teacher approval.
Then all four thousand public school teachers in New Orleans, members of the largest union in Louisiana, were fired - along with support staff.
The rest of the takeover was accomplished in November 2005 under new rules enacted by the Louisiana legislature. All this while most of the families of public school students remained displaced - many hundreds of miles away.
The New Orleans Teachers Report complained that "Proponents of the New Orleans takeover experiment created the false impression that the hurricane forced the state takeover or that a fair and uniform accountability system led to the state's action. In fact, the state changed the rules and targeted New Orleans schools in an attempt to convert all schools to charter status, not just the failing ones. Most charter schools are pre-existing schools that were converted to charter status. After the mass charter school conversions in the three months following Katrina, the RSD ... authorized only three more charters.... Of the 12 schools, the operation of all but three has been given to providers who are based out of state."
Many foundations are contributing large sums of money to the experiment.
For example, the Laura Bush Foundation has generously donated millions of dollars to rebuild school libraries in schools along the Gulf Coast. Her foundation has given tens of thousands of dollars in grants to rebuild the libraries of 13 schools in New Orleans - eight charter schools and five private Catholic schools. Not one is an RSD regular public school.
How the Experiment Actually Operates
With a few exceptions, the state of Louisiana essentially now controls the public school system in New Orleans. There is little local control. The state has subcontracted much of the work of education to willing charter schools.
Of the public schools operating at the end of the 2006-2007 academic year, charter schools were educating 57 percent of public school students.
This makes New Orleans the urban district with by far the highest proportion of publicly funded charter schools in the nation. Dayton, Ohio has the second-highest concentration of charter schools, involving 30 percent of its 17,000 students.
This experiment has resulted in a clearly defined two-tier public school system.
The top tier is made up of the best public and charter public schools, which most children cannot get into, and a number of new and promising charter public schools that are available for the industrious and determined parents of children who do not have academic or emotional disabilities.
The second tier is for the rest of the children. Their education is assigned to the RSD (some are already calling it "The Rest of the School District").
The top half of the schools are the point of this experiment in public charter schools. National charter school advocacy groups are pointing to New Orleans as the experiment that will demonstrate that publicly funded charter schools are superior to public schools.
However, the top half could not work without the bottom half. If the schools in the top half had to accept the students assigned to the second-tier schools, the results of the experiment would obviously turn out quite differently. As the experiment is structured, students in the bottom-half schools will be very useful to compare with the top half to see how well this works.
While some sympathize with the children in the bottom half, little has been done to assist those in the RSD schools.
How the Top Half Operates
Start with the money. Charter schools have more of it than the RSD schools.
Each charter school is given a share of the federal $20.9-million-dollar grant. None of that money is available to non-charter public schools.
As the Cowen report notes, charter public schools also have advantages other than just financial ones over the rest of the public schools. Though funded by tax dollars, charters are granted greater autonomy over staffing, budgeting and curriculum than regular public schools. Charters have better facilities, fewer problems attracting staff, and can keep school class size small.
Charters are allowed to impose enrollment caps. These caps allow them to turn down additional students who seek to enroll. This keeps pupil/teacher ratios down and class sizes small - a universally recognized key to academic achievement.
Some of the top-tier public schools have explicit selective enrollment policies which screen out children with academic problems. Most of the remaining charters are technically supposed to be open enrollment schools but require pre-application essays, parental-involvement requirements and specific behavior contracts - allowing these charter schools the flexibility to "manage" their incoming classes, rather than having to accept every student who applies. At nine schools, traditional public school transportation is not provided, further limiting the choices.
A look at the Algiers Charter School Association (ACSA) web site illustrates how schools in the top half operate.
Financially, the ACSA budget reports expenditures of $27 million in 2006-2007, leaving an apparent surplus of $11 million. For 2005-2006, the ACSA was given $2.5 million from Orleans Parish School Board ($500 per student over and above their regular funding), a $6 million federal charter school grant, plus the state minimum foundation funds.
That is not all of the extra money. The ACSA has also received several major grants. For example, in June of 2007 the ACSA was awarded a special $999,000 federal grant to help improve learning in American history. In March, 2007 Baptist Community Ministries announced a $4.2 million grant to create a network among the charter schools.
The ACSA website includes their application process, which specifically spells out that student applicants will NOT be considered "on a first come, first serve basis." Decisions on whether an applicant is allowed to attend will be based on several factors, including scores on state examinations and whether the applicant has ever received any special education services for a learning disability or emotional disturbance.
Many of the other charter schools also benefit from special funds and special admissions policies. One of the most selective public charter schools, Lusher Charter School, received millions extra in special grants from Tulane University, FEMA, the State of Louisiana, a German Foundation which gave $1.1 million to renovate the gymnasium, and other foundations.
Wouldn't every returning student like to enroll in one of these schools?
Students returning to New Orleans who might seek to enroll in one of the top-half schools are likely to be disappointed. The deadline for enrollment at most of the charter schools has already passed. For example, applications to enroll in Lusher Charter for this fall were due December 15, 2006.
How the Rest of the School District Operates
By law, the RSD is required to accept any student who shows up, and is prohibited from having any selective admissions policy.
From the beginning, Louisiana officials charged with making policy and operating the RSD complained that they were being left with educating the "leftover children" after the charters and the selective schools took the children with the best academic scores and best parental involvement.
Damon Hewitt, a civil rights attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and a New Orleans native, discovered the reference to "leftovers" in an email sent by one of Louisiana's top education policy makers. The email is from Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) member Glenny Lee Buquet. She wrote in an internal BESE email in January 2007, obtained by Hewitt in a federal case, "We wanted charter schools to open and take the majority of the students. That didn't happen, and now we have the responsibility of educating the 'leftover' children."
Who are the "leftover children" in the RSD? Hewitt again: "The students served by the RSD are typically those who could not get into any of the fancy charter or selective admissions schools. They are the average New Orleans students - talented, creative and bright, but locked in poverty and out of opportunity."
The average New Orleanian child is our child. These children are the children of our sisters and brothers and cousins and coworkers. Yet they are categorized as, and treated like, something quite different by people in charge of public education.
The RSD has not been up to the job of educating New Orleans children because, from day one and continuing until today, it lacked the appropriate number and quality of people and the expertise to run a big urban school system.
One of the best illustrations of the problems of the RSD is their refusal to admit hundreds of returning New Orleans children to public schools in January of 2007. Instead, the RSD put these kids on a "waiting list." Public outcry and two federal lawsuits forced a quick reversal and the kids were put into RSD schools.
At the same time as the RSD put kids on a waiting list, "Thousands of empty seats and dozens of empty classrooms could be found in charter schools or in the city's selective or discretionary-admissions public schools" the New Orleans Teachers Report points out.
So why was there a problem? There was space for these kids in the charter public schools. But because the public charter schools are allowed to cap their enrollment they did not have to admit any new children. In reality, the main reason there was a problem was not space, but a shortage of teachers willing to work for the RSD.
Is it any surprise that the disorganized and understaffed RSD was having problems finding teachers for their schools?
The New Orleans Teachers Report indicates that many veteran teachers remain furious at the State of Louisiana and its RSD because they were fired and their right to collective bargaining was terminated. Teachers point out that veteran teachers hired in adjoining districts continue to enjoy collective bargaining along with the rest of the teachers. But not in New Orleans.
Uncertified teachers were widespread in RSD schools.
In fact, certified teachers from around the country who wanted to help by teaching in New Orleans were directed by the Teach for NOLA recruitment web site to charter schools. Uncertified teachers were directed to the RSD.
The RSD was still 500 teachers short at the time this article was written. In July of 2007, the RSD ran a $400,000 national campaign to try to hire an additional 500 teachers to start in the fall. The RSD is offering up to $17,300 in relocation and other incentives to try to get teachers into the system. If there are any teachers reading this, please come and help the children in the RSD Ð you are desperately needed!
As of July, the RSD was also working furiously to erect temporary modular buildings to house children when school starts in the fall. Meanwhile, neighboring St. Bernard Parish opened school in temporary school buildings two months after Katrina - nearly two years ago.
An indication of the fragmentation of the system are the many starting dates for New Orleans public schools. Some charter schools will start August 6, another on August 8. Five start August 14, others in mid- to late August. The two dozen or so RSD schools will open September 4 - in part to give more time to build new schools to open and to recruit teachers.
During 2006-2007 school security became a top issue. Consider the experiment of placing thousands of recently traumatized and frequently displaced children into schools without enough teachers or staff or facilities. Consider also that those who are charged with supervising the schools are inexperienced and understaffed as well. The logical outcome of such an experiment is insecurity.
The RSD spent $20 million on security. They had one security guard for every 37 students in 2006-2007, a rate nine times higher than the old public school security system. At one point there were 35 guards at RSD John McDonough Senior High, plus two off-duty police officers. Thirty-two guards started at another school in the fall.
This situation quickly prompted the Fyre Youth Squad, a group of high school students in New Orleans, to challenge the "prison atmosphere" at John McDonough High. There were more security guards than teachers at their school.
What impact does this have on education of children? Research shows that students feel more tense when they encounter security guards at every turn in a school, said Monique Dixon, a senior attorney at the Advancement Project, a Washington, DC civil rights organization that works with community groups on issues such as school discipline. "It becomes more of a prison on some levels where people feel they are being watched constantly instead of feeling protected," she said. "It creates a police state."
The financial implications of spending money this way are also troubling. While New Orleans spent $20 million on private security for around 50 schools, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that the Philadelphia public school security budget for more than 260 schools was about $47 million, which included a 450-member independent police force, 150 auxiliary officers, and partnerships with more than 200 community members. In Detroit, the budget this fiscal year for the 400-member independent police force that protects the public schools, which has more than 100,000 students and more than 200 schools, was about $16 million.
Controlling students sometimes appeared to take priority over educating students.
Damon Hewitt points out that "the line between criminal justice policy and education got much blurrier over the past year and a half, as local schools have resorted to increasingly punitive approaches to school discipline. Relying more on police officers than community engagement, school officials' harsh responses to challenging behavior mirror public fear and sentiment about crime in the city. As a result, more children end up being suspended, expelled and arrested and sent to juvenile court. This phenomenon, which some call the School-to-Prison Pipeline, is literally robbing New Orleans of its most valuable asset - people."
"Some say that children in New Orleans are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," continues Hewitt. "But they are really suffering from the impact of Continuing Trauma - trauma that plays itself out every day. To the extent that children do act out [...] in schools, a lot of it has to do with both this continuing trauma and unmet educational needs, especially for those students in need of special education and related services. We cannot suspend, expel and arrest our way out of this problem. In fact, those harsh responses only make things worse by depriving young people of much-needed educational opportunity."
The academic results measured by standardized test scores given in spring 2007 at the RSD schools were predictably low. Nearly half the students failed in most fourth and eighth grade categories. Two-thirds of high school students failed in the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) and Graduate Exit Exam (GEE). The selective public schools had only an 18 percent failure rate on the GEE. LEAP scores for individual schools reported during the summer show what most expected: charter schools test better than RSD schools.
One current public school teacher, name withheld for reasons that will be obvious, was not hopeful.
"The public schools are totally fragmented. The struggles are still the same. Students still have difficult situations at home, some are still in trailers or living with too many people in one small home.
"Schools still lack books and materials, which I don't understand. After Katrina there were so many offers of help, both physical and monetary. I don't think that the people in charge knew what to do to organize a decent response to the offers.
"The RSD schools lack enough qualified and experienced teachers. The state Department of Education is well-intentioned, but they are barely dealing with the day-to-day issues and they still need to open more schools as people come back to the city.
"Yes, it sounds dismal. I don't see any big changes for next year. I think many of the charter schools have promise. The charters usually have a committed administration and staff and frequently a committed parent body. That is the secret to success."
Leigh Dingerson of the Center for Community Change in Washington, DC, who has been researching the New Orleans schools after Katrina, sums up the problems with the New Orleans experiment.
"In the 18 months since Hurricane Katrina, the infrastructure of the New Orleans public schools has been systematically dismantled and a new tangle of independently operated educational experiments has been erected in its place. This new structure has taken away community control and community ownership of all but a handful of schools. Instead, independent charter management organizations - virtually all from outside the state - are now running 60 percent of New Orleans schools.
"There are no more neighborhood boundaries. In a market-based model, parents are considered 'customers.' And they're supposed to 'choose' where to send their kids to school. But since every one of the charter schools was filled to capacity, hundreds of parents had no choice at all for their kids.
"Hundreds of kids with disabilities (who are often turned away from charter schools) are being placed in the under-resourced and over-burdened state-run Recovery School District. It's their only choice.
"This Balkanized school system is not closing a gap. It's opening a chasm."
The Cowen Report survey of the community agrees with much of the Digerson analysis, finding that "for many in the community, the RSD-operated schools are viewed as an unofficial 'dumping ground' for students with behavioral or academic challenges."
All indicators conclude that the RSD overall has done a poor job educating all the thousands of children in their half of the experiment, especially those with disabilities, because of RSD's own lack of expertise and experienced staff and because the schools they supervise lack the necessary teachers, support staff and resources.
Next installment - What the Future Looks Like for New Orleans Children in Public Schools.