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Doug Harris’ Book, Charter School City ((Shaking My Head))

August 24, 2020

Education Research Alliance of New Orleans (ERA) founder Doug Harris has published a book about the primarily-post-Katrina charterization of New Orleans public schools, Charter School City (University of Chicago Press, July 2020).

Harris’ book is endorsed by Former US ed sec Arne Duncan:

“The schools in New Orleans have gotten better faster than perhaps any other district in the country. To see this progress, in the wake of the trauma and devastation from Hurricane Katrina, is just awe-inspiring. In this ground-breaking book, Harris provides a full and careful picture of how the community did it and what others can learn from it. New Orleans shows us what’s possible, and it gives all of us reason for hope.”
— Arne Duncan, managing partner, Emerson Collective and former US Secretary of Education

This is the same Arne Duncan who callously tossed off in January 2010, “I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.” (Days later, Duncan apologized for the comment.)

I wonder how much of Harris’ book Duncan had actually read.

In January 2020, I read it all. Cover to cover.

I did so at the request of Commonweal Magazine, a New York-based publication seeking a review of Harris’ book. I submitted my review in February 2020, just weeks before the pandemic shut down the country and delayed many plans, including publication of my review.

I have confirmed that Commonweal Magazine still plans to publish my review of Charter School City, but there is no definite date set yet. Meanwhile, I am hearing from colleagues who are asking me if I know of Harris’ Charter School City, and I am receiving ads like this publicizing events to promote the book.

I do want to respond, without violating my agreement with Commonweal Magazine by pre-publishing the review I wrote for them.

So, let me offer a brief paraphrase of my impression of Charter School City.

My own family’s history is rooted in New Orleans. My parents attended all-white public schools that were purposely zoned as all white; “white flight” from New Orleans public schools and the local government’s reinforced racial separation in neighborhoods and schools, with the intentional leveraging of power and economic advancement in favor of white families and against black families– and this is key– across generations– grounded and imbedded– a situation that white-affluent-led, post-Katrina political maneuverings for school takeover only underscores and certainly doesn’t solve.

On the contrary, this white-affluent slighting of New Orleans’ black community is business as usual for New Orleans, and yet, Harris celebrates white, politically-connected reform leader, Leslie Jacobs, as a nonconformist hero. At the expense of New Orleans’ generationally-exploited black community, Harris admires the “reform community” and how they were nurtured by the likes of Tulane University, which leveraged them by providing them office space at a time when locals were hard pressed to return home– including black teachers, whose post-Katrina mass firing Harris views as unfortunate but necessary because of their unionization. No problem, Harris notes: Teach for America was able to provide a ready army of predominately white, inexperienced outsiders to relieve New Orleans community members of their livelihoods in their hour of critical need.

So, as Arne Duncan celebrates Katrina wiping out New Orleans as a fortuitous change catalyst and applauds Harris for presenting “a full and careful picture,” Harris fails to grasp the true depth of the putrid irony he has stepped into in casually promoting yet another white affluent disenfranchisement of local involvement in the school choice imposed upon New Orleans black community.

Later in his book, Harris weakly acknowledges this disenfranchisement, but his cautions do not match the gravity of his support for yet another instance of white privilege displacing black empowerment and support for the New Orleans black community in the public education arena– which cannot be divorced from black security in the promise of black New Orleanian economic advancement that has been actively and intentionally beaten down by whites in power across generations.

Despite his lightly-noted cautions about loss of community involvement, limits of free markets, the decision making of reformers away from public purview and his comment about “not argu[ing]” that “the New Orleans model is best for New Orleans,” Harris ends his book by applauding Leslie Jacobs and the reform community for “creat[ing] an entirely new type of school district.”

Harris had a real opportunity here to accurately frame New Orleans school takeover in its embedded history of black New Orleanian economic and political disenfranchisement, and he profoundly missed it.

In order to gain a sense of critical historical framing missing from Harris’ book, I suggest that prior to reading Charter School City, one first read another book about education in New Orleans, William Frantz Public School: A Story of Race, Resistance, Resiliency, and Recovery in New Orleans. The context is indispensable.

In the end, you will not be celebrating Leslie Jacobs.

charterschoolcity

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4 Comments
  1. David Alvarez permalink

    Thank you for this summary – it will help me when I speak in front of the Charter Association here in New Orleans as I run for school board. This is the narrative all of us should be pushing not the one that is pushed in the book. Again, thank you for your diligence and providing a voice to the voiceless. In community, David

  2. Gene Glass permalink

    Hi Mercedes Terrific review of Harris’s screed. Is there any way that *Education Review/Resenas Educativas* could publish your review without infringing on your agreement with Commonweal? If you were willing, of course. The review really deserves wide distribution and ER/RE has a very wide readership around the world.

    Gene

    Gene V Glass *h ttp://gvglass.info *

  3. Hi, Gene. Thank you for the offer to post my review. Feel free to republish the contents of this post in Er/Re.Doing so will not infringe upon my agreement with Commonweal.

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