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My Complete, Unedited Review of Doug Harris’ Book, Charter School City

February 26, 2021

In January 2020, Commonweal Magazine asked me to review Doug Harris’ book about New Orleans charter schools, Charter School City.

I completed my review in February 2020, but with the pandemic, my review was not published until November 2020.

As so often happens in publication, the review I submitted was pared down considerably, which editors reserve the right to do though the result might make the review seem shallow or incomplete. In this case (and to my dismay), the edits in one section involved a splicing that altered the meaning of my words. (For the backstory on that error, see this email exchange.)

According to the terms of my contract with Commonweal, I needed to wait 90 days before publicizing my originally-submitted, unedited review. And so, since those 90 days have passed, I offer below my complete review of Harris’ book.

Book Review: Douglas N. Harris, Charter School City: What the End of Traditional Public Schools in New Orleans Means for American Education, University of Chicago Press, April 2020.

***

My family is from New Orleans. My father and his siblings grew up in a white neighborhood, intentionally zoned, and attended all-white schools in the 1920s and 30s, also intentionally zoned. In the 1950s, my family relocated to neighboring St. Bernard Parish, as did many former white residents of New Orleans. My mother also grew up in New Orleans and relocated to St. Bernard, where she attended an all-white high school in the early to mid-1960s. Around the time my mother was a freshman in high school (1960), just as Ruby Bridges became the first black child to attend New Orleans’ all-white William Franz Elementary school,St. Bernard opened a school on the St. Bernard-Orleans Parish line expressly to allow white residents of New Orleans to use school vouchers to escape federally-mandated integration of New Orleans public schools. Though the voucher school was forced to close a year later, the virulent anti-black sentiment in the white communities of New Orleans and St. Bernard lived on.

In the 1966-67 school year, under pressure from the federal government, St. Bernard officially racially integrated its public schools, but not before the school board separated its middle and high schools by gender, to prevent adolescent black boys and adolescent white girls from attending the same public schools. In 1985, I graduated from an all-girls public high school. That same year, the St. Bernard school system was sued for not fully and completely integrating its schools, thereby depriving girls of the same extracurricular opportunities as the boys. My sister graduated in 1988; hers was the last graduating class from our all-female public high school.

Meanwhile, in New Orleans, white flight continued, either by white families outright moving to suburbs or by enrolling their children in New Orleans’ parochial schools. The governor, legislature, and Orleans Parish school board actively worked to suppress the economic advancement of New Orleans’ black citizens by limiting job advancement, educational opportunity, and housing options. As whites fled New Orleans, the tax base for public services and public maintenance shrunk, and, thanks to the ugly, ingrained, suppressive methods of whites in power, New Orleans had no solid, black middle class to serve as a sufficient tax base to support and maintain public services, including New Orleans’ public schools. And so, as one might logically expect, generations later, the public education situation in New Orleans had become dire.

I have yet to hear any authoritative, white voice from New Orleans publicly assuming responsibility for the horrid, nasty oppression that generations of white citizen resistance wreaked upon black citizen advancement in New Orleans, in, among other venues, its schools.

As I began reading Douglas Harris’ book, Charter School City, I wondered if its pages would include such an acknowledgement.

The answer is no.

The central focus of Harris’ work is to compare test score and graduation rate data for New Orleans public schools in years immediately preceding the 2005 devastation of Hurricane Katrina with test score and graduation data from post-Katrina (c.2006) to 2015. Based on these results (chapter 4 of the book), Harris considers New Orleans’ post-Katrina education reform efforts to be a success. Much of the book is devoted to examining possible reasons for improvement in the metrics. In chapter 9, Harris concludes that New Orleans test score and graduation rate improvements are a result of the state’s school takeover process.

Even as I read of New Orleans’ improvement, I could not help but think of the audit being conducted of New Orleans high school transcripts, and of initial findings of missing test scores and class credits, an audit conducted at the request of the New Orleans schools superintendent following a scandal that affected numerous would-be graduating seniors at one high school. I also thought of the numerous lawsuits for the release of New Orleans test data from the Louisiana Department of Education, which is run by a champion of New Orleans reform. Thus, I am not confident in the integrity of the data Harris analyzed.Even so, data integrity is not my principal concern.

In chapter 3, Harris details the state takeover of New Orleans schools in the chaotic aftermath of Katrina, and at the heart of it all is former state school board member and businesswoman, Leslie Jacobs. Harris credits Jacob with drafting legislation to declare most of New Orleans schools as failing, and she and a handful of other white affluent individuals form the core of what Harris refers to as the “reform community.” Harris notes the importance of this reform community coming together in order to effect its reforms, including being offered office space by Tulane University, a private, predominately white institution. Ironically, Harris promotes one community at the expense of another. The reform community intentionally shuts out the predominantly black New Orleans community in its planning, and indeed, this white, affluent reform community notably damages New Orleans’ black middle class by Orleans Parish School Board’s mass firing of its teachers in the weeks following Katrina. Harris views this mass firing as unfortunate but necessary for the success of the reform effort in New Orleans, the ultimate goal of which was to replace board-led, traditional public schools with a portfolio of independently-operated charter schools. One reason in particular that the New Orleans teachers had to go was that they were unionized, and their union contract included such stipulations as teachers being allowed to be tardy to school ten times prior to any corrective action and administrators being forbidden from observing teachers’ classes.

It’s a good thing that the reform community could rely on Teach for America for temporary, predominantly-white, inexperienced, out-of-state replacements, Harris notes.

When I read about the above conditions in the New Orleans teachers’ union contract, for a moment, I was surprised. I am a member of my local teachers’ union, and I have never heard of such conditions. But here is where researcher Harris should have gone further with his query: Why would New Orleans teachers feel the need for such job protections? Could it be tied to the generations of white, racist hostility at all levels of government and experienced by black New Orleans citizens who tried to establish a place for themselves and their families in the middle class? Harris asks no such questions, nor does he posit that including the true community in the reform community’s plans would have presented an opportunity to build a trust that might have resulted in some negotiation to modify that teaching contract, especially given that the contract was set to expire anyway in 2006, a fact that Harris acknowledges.

On the contrary, Harris celebrates Jacobs as a maverick of needed reform, seizing the moment and coming together with other white, affluent New Orleanians to create this charter school city.

In examining the reasons for test score improvement, Harris discovers that New Orleans parents want to have neighborhood schools as a choice option. He seems to nod with furrowed brow as he acknowledges that no such choice exists. Still, test scores are up. Too, in discussing the chartering process, Harris interviews black community members who sought approval for charter schools, only to learn that locals need not apply. Finally, Harris admits that residents seeking to operate charter schools cannot not choose any charter authorizer but are instead restricted to those approved by the state.

In reading Charter School Choice, I often thought, “Let me see where this goes.”So, when I reached chapter 11 and read, “…I am not even arguing that the New Orleans model is best for New Orleans,” Harris had my attention. In this chapter, Harris notes a number of limitations, including the inequity of free markets, the loss of geographic community, and “Jacobs and other reform leaders ma[king] their decisions behind closed doors.” Once I concluded chapter 11, I was satisfied to see that Harris did express concerns, but withholding those concerns until the end of the book made the book read as though it were written by two Harrises, with the first being more clinically distant and the second, realizing that his summations have practical implications and therefore offering clear cautions.

In those summations, Harris acknowledges that in the area of community engagement, the New Orleans reforms were “least successful.” However, he does not consider the intentional exclusion of the community in leading the post-Katrina reforms to be the chief issue that makes New Orleans reforms unsuccessful, period, despite the outcomes of any metrics.

Harris does not understand the impact of generational disenfranchisement on New Orleans’ black community, a point which he brings home in chapter 12 when he again refers to Jacobs and her 2018 “carefully crafted legislation” to “return” (now) charter schools to local board oversight while preventing the board from “impeding the operational autonomy under its jurisdiction” in a number of areas.

Harris just wrote about the need for community engagement, yet he quickly returns to the same white affluence that in 2005 intentionally muted the voices of the black community setting the 2018 legislative parameters affecting the New Orleans predominantly black community and its schools.

Despite his strongly-worded cautions in chapter 11, Harris ends as he begins, with a celebration of Jacobs and the reform community: “In effect, what Jacobs and the reform community have now done is to create an entirely new type of school district, one intended to entrench school-level autonomy, parental choice and performance-based accountability.”

This disappointing end baffles me.

Harris’ book includes much informative detail on education reform in New Orleans, but on the critical importance of community involvement in all aspects of education decision making, Charter School City fails. I consider it the best off-base book that I have read to date.

–Mercedes Schneider

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12 Comments
  1. David Berliner permalink

    Thanks for this excellent review. I did not read the book carefully and dismissed it quickly because i saw no full explanation about who was lost and who remained in (or returned to) NO after the hurricane. It was my understanding that the poorest of the NO students never returned, and thus the stayers were a little better off in SES, thus, any before and after comparisons were not legitimate. The gains discussed were a function of population changes from before to after.
    Was my impression wrong?
    Thanks for all you do to illuminate the strange world we live in.
    David

    • Hi, David. Before and after comparisons cannot be made because too much changed, not just student demographics. One of the key issues was the amount of FEMA money pouring into NOLA following Katrina. Another is the decentralization that is part of a portfolio model– it allows students to exit one school and not be enrolled in another. No trackng. Plus, the “before-and-after comparisons” were marketed to sell success. The real problem is the continued disenfranchisement of black citizens, which has been the problem for generations in New Orleans.

  2. JACK HASSARD permalink

    Mercedes,
    Terrific review of the New Orleans debacle. Do you know Dr Kristen Buras. She’s a professor at Georgia State University and I think grew up in New Orleans. Here is some information about Dr Buras that I think you will find relevant to your research as it relates to New Orleans.

    Dr. Buras has spent nearly two decades researching school reform in New Orleans, the nation’s first all-charter-school district. Guided by a commitment to grassroots community engagement and informed by critical theories of race, political economy, and space, her research explores the effects of charter school expansion and alternative teacher recruitment on the city’s African American communities. She is the co-founder and director of the New Orleans-based Urban South Grassroots Research Collective for Public Education (USGRC), a coalition dedicated to melding community concerns with equity-focused research. Along these lines, Buras was granted the Distinguished Scholar-Activist Award by Critical Educators for Social Justice of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

    • JACK HASSARD permalink

      Kristen has published Kristen L. Buras
      Rightist Multiculturalism: Core Lessons on Neoconservative School Reform
      It’s a brilliant book about that I’d case study of New Orleans public education. I recommend it
      Jack

    • Yes. Dr. Buras is well known in the public education activist community. I’ve had the privilege of hearing her speak several times. The power and money behind education deform in New Orleans, and nationwide, never ceases to amaze me particularly in light of the numerous publications like those of Dr. Schneider, Dr. Raynard Sanders and others that have documented the history and destruction that so-called reform has brought.

    • Hi, Jack. I do know Kristen. She invited me to participate in a one-day conference she organized for the ten-year anniversary of Katrina.

  3. A couple of years ago, I checked the latest census report back then and compared the number of school-aged children reported living in NO with the number of children that attended those racist charter schools and it was obvious that thousands of children must be getting their education on the streets. Those charters made little or no effort to deal with children that were not in school or even being homeschooled. From what I learned then, the racist charter schools didn’t care if K-12 children never showed up to school.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Mercedes Schneider: The Story Behind the New Orleans Takeover | Diane Ravitch's blog
  2. Vouchers May Be The Next Big Education Reform. Have Charter Schools Been Left Behind? – Karamel Mall
  3. Vouchers May Be The Next Big Education Reform. Have Charter Schools Been Left Behind? - Forbes - RocketNews
  4. Vouchers May Be The Next Big Education Reform. Have Charter Schools Been Left Behind? - Idiocracy News Media

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