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Do Not Follow New Orleans’ Lead on Charter-School Education.

July 20, 2018

On July 1, 2018, the Washington Post published an op-ed entitled, “Following New Orleans’ Lead on Charter-School Education.” The author, education policy analyst Emily Langhorne of the Progressive Policy Institute, uses this opportunity to promote what she terms the “quiet milestone” of Hurricane Katrina’s “wip[ing] out the city’s abysmal public schools” and the “rebuilding from the ground up as a laboratory for charter schools” operated under the direction of the state via the Recovery School District (RSD), an “experiment” that Langhorne declares “proved successful.”

On July 6, 2018, the Network for Public Education (NPE) published a report that I drafted and that counters the claims of New Orleans’ charter-experiment success. My report, entitled, New Orleans Schools Post-Katrina: Rebirth or Afterbirth?, counters claims of the New Orleans, Post-Katrina, All-Charter Miracle narrative on three important fronts, which I briefly describe in this posting.

First of all, white student privilege is alive and well in New Orleans, schools, just as it was pre-Katrina. Perusal of 2017 letter grades for New Orleans schools shows that schools with notable concentrations of white students are mostly graded A and B, with one C and one D. Moreover, 34 of the 85 New Orleans schools—or 40 percent—were graded D or F in 2017.

Only one of these 34 D-F schools had a notable white population. All had predominately black populations. So, not only does one see that 40 percent of almost-all-charter New Orleans schools (four are still direct-run schools by Orleans Parish School Board, or OPSB) still have grades D and F in 2017—12 years post-Katrina; one also sees that these D and F schools demonstrate racial inequity in an almost-all-charter school system.

One might even use the term, “abysmal” to describe such equity and arguably, quality, failure.

A second point in my report is that state takeover of New Orleans schools did not counter corruption; it seems to have magnified opportunities for it. The section on fraud and corruption is extensive; in it, I trace the roots of corruption to then-Louisiana-state-superintendent, Cecil Picard, and his manipulation of US Department of Education (USDOE) Office of Inspector General (OIG) report on Title I funding and move forward to the ways in which corruption abounded from August 2005 forward. I cannot present all of those details here; so, I leave readers to consider the following excerpts:

According to the USDOE OIG, the problem with Title I spending in OPSB was a lack of guidance and oversight from LDE. It was not that OPSB had stolen millions in Title I money—a narrative that Picard promoted time and again to both OPSB board members and to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) board members.30 However, the missing-millions narrative was the beginning of Picard’s earnest efforts to bypass the authority of OPSB.

A 2013 audit of modular campus construction for the period of January 2007 to September 2009 identified $6.1M in “questionable payments for services beyond the scope of firms’ contracts, materials that were never provided, and unreasonably high rates,” including one firm charging $110 apiece to drill 180 four-inch holes, estimated to take less than 30 seconds per hole. …

[A 2015 Center for Popular Democracy and the Coalition for Community Schools] report also details fraud at eight New Orleans charter schools across a four-year period (2010 – 2014) totaling more than $1M. Fraudulent actions included a retroactive salary increase mislabeled as merit pay; excessive merit pay; nepotism; theft of school funds via cash withdrawals; excessive pay advances; use of school funds to purchase airline travel and hotel for family; an undocumented lunch for 48 people; purchased made with no evidence of competitive bidding; writing school checks to the charter operator’s own nonprofit; embezzlement; check forging; debit card theft; ineligible employee participation in teacher pension fund, and failing to enroll required employees in teacher pension fund.

If continued, rampant fraud is a component of a “successful experiment,” then yes, New Orleans’ state takeover of schools and subsequent (almost) all-charter conversion is a success.

But in order to be an assured success, community involvement must be thwarted at every turn. And so, we come to the third point in my report on the state takeover of New Orleans schools post-Katrina: erasing community involvement. Again, this section is extensive and includes detailed examples of community exploitation; however, I offer an excerpt that illustrates the state’s conscious efforts to divest the New Orleans community of power over its own schools:

In response to USDOE censure of LDE for the state’s failure to properly train OPSB individuals concerning proper usage of Title I funds and how to document such usage, state superintendent Picard told OPSB board members that the state had hired an outside firm (Alvarez and Marsal) and that the firm would report directly to Picard. This was the beginning of removing the New Orleans community from a voice in its schools since OPSB members are elected, not appointed, and Picard was choosing to override OPSB.

Note that USDOE said the state needed to assist districts; USDOE did not require the hiring of a private consulting firm (and one with no experience in the handling of federal education dollars, at that). However, instead of offering OPSB guidance, Picard opted to stymie OPSB authority and, by extension, smother the voice of the Orleans parish community.

Only a few months later, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, but it did not destroy all of the schools in New Orleans, and within days, New Orleanians living in neighborhoods that received little damage began to return home. According to former New Orleans principal, Raynard Sanders, his school, McDonogh High School, needed to be cleaned up, but the school was not damaged, and the school community expected to resume classes.43 Even so, despite the fact that the OPSB superintendent, Ora Watson, had developed a plan for reopening 52 schools by the end of 2005-06, and despite Watson’s noting that eight schools with minimal damage could open immediately, OPSB chose to take no action, instead preferring to offer OPSB employees “disaster leave without pay.

Why “disaster leave without pay” for Orleans? Here’s why: Picard petitioned Louisiana governor, Kathleen Blanco, for emergency funds in order to restore schools in areas receiving hurricane damage and to pay staff in this state of emergency. Blanco provided the funding, and Picard disbursed the funds to all affected parishes except Orleans Parish—which meant that OPSB was broke—an intentional move on Picard’s part.

Picard wanted to convert OPSB into a charter school district, and this was his chance. There were no community meetings concerning this decision. Picard again petitioned Blanco, this time asking for permission to bypass certain charter school establishment processes, which Blanco granted on October 28, 2005.

The eight schools Watson said were fit to open immediately were instead immediately (as in the day Blanco signed the order), along with five others, converted into charter schools. As to the staffing of those 13 schools, the community was again slighted, insulted and exploited; on November 30, 2005, Act 35 passed the Louisiana legislature; most OPSB schools were taken over by the state, and with that coup came the OPSB Reduction in Force (RIF), which resulted in the mass firing of all OPSB teachers —and essentially killing the New Orleans black middle class.

When one writes an op-ed on the post-Katrina success of New Orleans schools, one should consider what one is trying to sell as success. Continued racial inequity, low school grades for almost half of the charter replacements for once-community schools, abounding fiscal corruption, and community exploitation are all components of the true narrative that is almost-all-charter New Orleans schools 13 years post-Katrina.

Anyone omitting these sad and frustrating realities from an op-ed on the New Orleans charter miracle is either ill-informed or allied to promoting a flashy, market-based-ed-reform agenda likely from headquarters hundreds of miles away from those Katrina-swept streets.

speed limit 30


Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. IRA SHOR permalink

    Another great rejoinder. Pls send op-eds to NYT and WP if you can, no one is better qualified than you to refute these distortions.

    • Ira, this was sent to WAPO, and my previous piece was sent to NYT. They have been rejected, so I posted here.

      • Laura H. Chapman permalink

        Sorry to hear the charter PR system has won these two slots.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Mercedes Schneider to Emily Langhorne: New Orleans is NOT a National Model | Diane Ravitch's blog
  2. Louisiana’s Falling School Scores: Many “A’s” Expected to Become “C’s”(?) | deutsch29

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