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A Remarkable Piece of Journalism on Post-Katrina New Orleans School “Reform” Community Disenfranchisement

August 3, 2015

I do believe I just read the best piece of journalism to date regarding the stunning community disenfranchisement brought about by test-driven school reform in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Published on August 03, 2015, in Salon, the article is entitled, “Reform” makes Broken New Orleans Schools Worse: Race, Charters, testing, and the Real Story After Katrina,”  and it is written by my very capable colleague, Jennifer Berkshire.

jennifer berkshire Jennifer Berkshire

What one discovers is what is common sense to those not vested in marketing the marvels of test-score-driven corporate reform:

No fabricated or real test score gains can cleanse (much less heal) the festering sore that is the disenfranchised New Orleans community.

One might as well put expensive band-aids on a cancer and call it “problem solved” as to believe the narrative that It’s Ten Years After Katrina and New Orleans Is Making Progress.

In her Salon article, Berkshire illustrates as much remarkably well.

I am pleased to offer readers an excerpt and to encourage continued reading via a link at the end:

Here is all you need to know about the New Orleans schools before Hurricane Katrina hit, 10 years ago this summer: They were awful. The schools were awful, the school board was awful, the central office was awful—all of them were awful. At a recent conference held to tout the progress made by the schools here since Katrina, Scott Cowan, an early proponent of the all-charter-school model that exists here now, described New Orleans’ pre-storm schools as mired in “unprecedented dysfunction.” In other words, they were awful.

The problem with a story like this isn’t just that it leaves out anything that doesn’t fit but that it can be hard to contain once it gets going. Before long, this “awfulizing narrative,” as it was described to me more than once during the 10 days I recently spent in New Orleans, spread past the school yards and central offices, sweeping up in its wake parents, children, indeed the whole hot mess that is New Orleans. The awful story was at the root of the decision to fire 7,000 teachers after the storm, the majority of whom were black New Orleanians and the backbone of the city’s middle class. It is the reason why so few locals can be found among the ranks of education reform groups here. And it is a rarely acknowledged justification for the long school day favored by charters here—10, even 12 hours when you factor in the cross-city bus trips that a choice landscape necessitates.

“When you start from the point of view that the communities these kids come from are broken, then the goal becomes to keep kids away from them as much as possible,” says Deirdre Johnson Burel, the executive director of the Orleans Public Education Network or OPEN, which seeks to engage community members around school-related policy issues. “It’s a way of containing and insulating kids from their own families.

An advocate of school reform in New Orleans long before the cause was cool, not to mention lucrative, Burel doesn’t fit the pre-/post-Katrina schools narrative at all. A native New Orleanian, Burel is a proud graduate of McMain High School, then a magnet school, now part of the Orleans Parish School Board, still one of the city’s best. She was an early proponent of charter schools here, including the city’s first, NOLA Charter Middle School. “I worked in the district and saw the dysfunction. I saw what a difference it made for children and families when schools had autonomy and a community could create something for its own children.”

But when Burel looks at the version of education reform that has taken root in New Orleans since Katrina, she barely recognizes what she sees. “What we have now isn’t my vision. Reform here has diagnosed children and families as a liability.”

The Urban Education Future?

When Tulane’s Education Research Alliance gathered policymakers, education reform advocates and academics for a conference in late June, marking the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the beginning of New Orleans remaking of its public education system, organizers posed a question. Does New Orleans’ all-charter-school district represent “the urban education future”? The answer seemed predetermined. There is, after all, an aggressive effort already underway to sell the New Orleans model—”relinquishment” to true believers—with its mix of decentralization, school choice and extreme accountability, to urban districts across the country.

But again and again, the official theme of “measurable progress” was undercut by reminders of the real cost of what ERA director Doug Harris describes as “the largest overhaul of a public school system that the country has ever seen”: the 7,000 teachers whose firing was described as a wound that won’t heal; the shunting aside of special education students and English language learners, especially in the first years of the experiment; the loss of trust among New Orleanians who believe they’ve been shut out of any meaningful decision-making regarding their city’s schools.

“The test scores are up, but let’s be honest about what we had to do to get there,” is how scholar Andre Perry put it. “Don’t lie to people and say ‘it’s all good.’”

Perry arrived in New Orleans the year before Katrina to teach at the University of New Orleans (UNO). After the storm, he quickly got involved in the school reform effort and would eventually become the CEO of the Capital One/UNO charter network. Now, after several years in Michigan at Davenport University, Perry is back, and speaking in increasingly critical terms about the uncomfortable reality that, in a city that is 65 percent black, the education reform movement, including the fastest-growing charter school networks, is almost entirely white led.

“If we don’t have black leaders in the mix, we’re just reinforcing a power structure that helped cause the situation we were in,” Perry told me when I interviewed him earlier this year. Here he was blunter still: “We can’t have a white-led reform movement in New Orleans where all of the decisions are made by three or four power brokers.”

No place at the table

“It’s like there is no place for New Orleanians at the table,” parent advocate Ashana Bigard tells me. It’s a steamy weekday morning and Bigard is taking me on a tour of what she calls “the new New Orleans,” part of which is sprouting rapidly along a stretch of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. Named for the famed Louisiana civil rights activist, the OC Corridor is now a fast gentrifying thoroughfare, home to, among other new attractions, a restaurant that specializes in “urban caveman cooking” and cocktails on tap.

Bigard doesn’t fit neatly with the pre-/post-Katrina story either. She grew up in the Melpomene Projects, just blocks from where we are now. And by the time she ended up at the New Orleans Free School at age 11, she was reading more than two years behind grade level. But the school, a radical experiment in individualized learning and grade-free classes, suited her so well that she’d end up testing into a magnet high school, then studying elementary and early childhood education in college. She saw the re-envisioning of the schools after Katrina as a huge opportunity to make life better for the children of New Orleans, including giving more children the chance to benefit from the kind of liberatory education that so shaped her.

“I thought, ‘we’re finally going to get the schools our kids deserve.’ You had a third fewer kids than before the storm and much more money. There was a chance to really do it right,” says Bigard.

These days she advocates for parents whose kids face suspension or expulsion as a result of ending up on the wrong side of the strict disciplinary codes that are now the norm at many of the city’s charter schools. A parent of three, she’s also an outspoken critic of the system of schools that has been constructed since the storm. “I should have more choices, instead I have fewer.”

For the rest of Berkshire’s stellar article, follow this link.

st louis cathedral 2


Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

She also has a second book, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?, newly published on June 12, 2015.

both books

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