Chicago Tribune Editor Kristen McQueary’s Romanticized View of Paul Vallas’ Role in Post-Katrina New Orleans
On August 13, 2015, Chicago Tribune editor Kristen McQueary published an editorial in which she wished a “Hurricane Katrina” upon the city of Chicago.
A Katrina would force Chicago to “hit the reset button,” and that is why she was “praying for a real storm” to hit Chicago.
It should come as no surprise that she found herself in a storm as a result– a media storm publicly chastising her for her callousness. (See here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here.)
The August 14, 2015, International Business Times reports on the Chicago Tribune’s initial efforts to quell the resulting swift and powerful negative media response:
After outrage broke out on Twitter, the Chicago Tribune quickly changed the headline of McQueary’s piece from “In Chicago, Wishing for a Hurricane Katrina” to ““Chicago, New Orleans, and Rebirth.” The article was also edited after its original publication to tone down some of the statements readers found most inflammatory. But the New Orleans Times-Picayune archived the original column, and all citations in this article come from the first release of McQueary’s op-ed.
The first link in this post is also to McQueary’s original column entitled, “In Chicago, Wishing for a Hurricane Katrina.”
In her original editorial, McQueary not only glamorizes Katrina’s destruction; she also cluelessly glamorizes the accomplishments of Recovery School District (RSD) superintendent Paul Vallas:
An underperforming public school system saw a complete makeover. A new schools chief, Paul Vallas, designed a school system with the flexibility of an entrepreneur. No restrictive mandates from the city or the state. No demands from teacher unions to abide. Instead, he created the nation’s first free-market education system.
Allow me to address the fairy tale of a “complete makeover” Paul Vallas-style.
In chapter 10 of my book, A Chronicle of Echoes, I detail Vallas’ contributions to post-Katrina education in New Orleans. (It’s one of three chapters I have on the Vallas influence on public education in a number of states, including Illinois and his time as the Chicago Public Schools CEO who preceded Arne Duncan.)
Here is some of the information from Echoes, chapter 10:
During his time as RSD superintendent (2007-10), Vallas did increase the number of charter schools; however, applying the 2011 school letter grade system to schools in 2010 (the year Vallas left Louisiana), 93 percent would have been graded D or F.
During Vallas’ time as RSD superintendent, Vallas gave a pep talk to some students about how all was “new” now:
These are all brand new high schools…. This is not the Reed of old, it’s not the Douglas of old, it’s not the John Mac of old….
The 2010-11 cohort graduation rate for Sarah Towles Reed Senior High School was 49.6 percent. John McDonogh Senior High School has a 45.6 percent 2010-11 cohort graduation rate, and Douglass was no longer listed as a school.
The Vallas makeover.
(A side note about McDonogh: Vallas successor, John White, told McDonogh parents in October 2011 that he had the money to renovate their school but that he needed to see some test score improvements before he would spend the money– despite rotting floors, asbestos, and rodent droppings evident in the McDonogh building. Note for McQueary: 2011 was seven years post-Katrina.)
Also under Vallas’ watch, numerous audits revealed sloppy or indulgent fiscal oversight of the rebuilding and refurnishing of RSD schools. For example, the construction company Arrigh-Simoneaux was allowed to charge $110 to drill 180 four-inch holes in wooden floors, each taking less than 30 seconds to drill.
Under Vallas, several annual audits detected overpayments to RSD employees, failure to tag and account for RSD equipment, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments for work beyond the scope of contracts, for materials not supplied and work not done.
Moreover, during his time in New Orleans, Vallas used a state vehicle to make repeated trips back to Chicago: a 2009 state audit disclosed 31 trips in a Louisiana-taxpayer-funded automobile; $974 for fuel, and $776 that Louisiana taxpayers funded to cover damages Vallas incurred in his Louisiana-taxpayer-funded car while he was traveling to a press conference in Chicago.
What Vallas had when he arrived in New Orleans two years after Katrina hit was lots of state and federal aid to spend, no school board to answer to, and a weakened teachers union.
Vallas helped blow the state and federal aid money in irresponsible ways, as documented in detail in four state audits of his time as RSD superintendent. Graduation rates did not improve. The overwhelming majority of RSD schools were still rated as “failing” by the time he left in 2010. But he did manage to maintain his Chicago connections complements of unsuspecting Louisiana taxpayers.
All is fair in the free market.
In her August 14, 2015, “apology” for glamorizing post-Katrina New Orleans, McQueary continues to glamorize the free market as a post-Katrina prize for New Orleans:
School reform vastly expanded in New Orleans after the hurricane. Dozens of schools were added to the Recovery School District. Whether you approve of charter schools or not, it was a revolutionary change in education, and it would not have happened without Hurricane Katrina.
McQueary clearly approves of charters and sees them as a benefit, a “revolutionary change” that New Orleans residents ought to be thankful to have.
She offers no substance to back her enthusiasm, just as she offers no details on the less-than-wonder that was RSD superintendent Paul Vallas.
Quick to write, slow to research, but contrite post-Phenomenal-Blunder… sort of.
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?, published on June 12, 2015.