New Orleans’ Charter School Transformation: the Very Definition of Injustice

When I look back, I can see that the year between September of 2005 and September of 2006 was when I realized deeply and in the most unforgettable way how powerful people can transform the systems we take for granted and in the process disempower the vulnerable.

In November of 2005, I couldn’t believe it when I learned—while bodies were still being discovered in the attics of New Orleans’ flooded and abandoned houses and while most people were staying with relatives in far away places or FEMA trailers in Houston—that the state of Louisiana had changed the law to seize the city’s public schools and fire all the teachers as part of a complicated school governance experiment driven by ideologues in the U.S. Department of Education, the state of Louisiana, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I had naively imagined that the goal would be to get families back to town as soon as possible and get children back in school under the secure guidance of the teachers those children knew.

Others were alarmed as well. Naomi Klein used the seizure and mass charterization of New Orleans’ public schools as the very definition of what she called “the shock doctrine”: “New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’… I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)  Leigh Dingerson and the Center for Community Change published a short resource titled, Dismantling a Community. And later, in a book published by the Teachers College Press, Pedagogy, Policy, and the Privatized City, Kristen Buras shared the voices of New Orleans’ high school students describing what had been done to their schools.

In July of 2006, I was able to spend a week in New Orleans and to write about it.  I listened to all kinds of people including experienced teachers—replaced by Teach for America recruits—who had lost their profession and lost their livelihood. Tracie Washington, a civil rights attorney, told me she worried about fragmentation of services in the mass of charter schools: “The schools cannot be effectively compared and evaluated because there are too many types, too many curricula, too many tests, too many everything.”

I learned that a special exception had been made to the theory that charter schools ought to be non-selective.  New Orleans had been permitted to create charters with admissions tests and other selection screens—seizing the public, neighborhood Alcee Fortier High School, for example, and, with a big investment from Tulane University, converting it into selective Lusher Charter High School with an admissions preference for children whose parents taught at area universities. A former public school teacher told me: “Selective schools will show promise because they are selecting students who will show promise by testing well.”

Now, a dozen years after Hurricane Katrina, we have another opportunity to listen to the people in New Orleans describing what has happened to their schools.  Last fall, the national NAACP passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools, and the civil rights organization has been holding local hearings on that resolution. In April, the NAACP chose New Orleans, where the mass charter experiment was launched, for one of its hearings, and Bill Quigley, a long New Orleans resident, esteemed professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans, and Associate Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, listened as people told their stories.

Here is Bill Quigley’s report:  “The New Orleans hearing… featured outraged students, outraged parents, and dismayed community members reciting a litany of the problems created by the massive change to a charter school system. The single most powerful moment came when a group of students from Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools took the podium and detailed the many ways the system has failed and excluded them from participating in its transformation.”

Quigley summarizes: “(T)he NAACP heard that the charter system remains highly segregated by race and economic status. Students have significantly longer commutes to and from school. The percentage of African American teachers has declined dramatically leaving less experienced teachers who are less likely to be accredited and less likely to remain in the system. The costs of administration have gone up while resources for teaching have declined. Several special select schools have their own admission process which results in racially and economically different student bodies. The top administrator of one K-12 system of three schools is paid over a quarter of a million dollars. Students with disabilities have been ill served. Fraud and mismanagement, which certainly predated the conversion to charter schools, continue to occur. Thousand of students are in below-average schools. Students and parents feel disempowered and ignored by the system.”

Quigley emphasizes lingering bitterness about the elimination, in late autumn of 2005, of New Orleans’ entire teaching staff: “The first casualty of the abrupt change was the termination of the South’s largest local union and the firing of over 7000 mostly African American female teachers. Attorney Willie Zanders told the NAACP of the years of struggle for those teachers which, though initially successful, ended in bitter defeat years later. The city’s veteran black educators were replaced by younger, less qualified white teachers from Teach for America and Teach NOLA. The change to charters reduced the percentage of black teachers from 74 percent to 51 percent. There are now fewer experienced teachers, fewer accredited teachers, fewer local teachers, and more teachers who are likely to leave than before Katrina.”

In his brief and well-documented report, Quigley also summarizes some history: “One of the more dramatic and well-documented problems in the changeover to charters is the absence of services for students with disabilities. The Southern Poverty Law Center sued over disability violations in 2010… Children with disabilities had been denied enrollment altogether, forced to attend schools ill-equipped or lacking resources to serve them, and suspended without procedural protections.. After suit was filed it took an additional four years to set up a system to uphold the educational rights of students with disabilities. Now, there is a district-wide consent decree in place overseen by an Independent Monitor who reports to the Court. Yet, the disability problems remain. In 2017, a charter was rebuked for suspending a student who the school thought was depressed…  At another charter, since closed, the State identified egregious special education violations. Staff reused to screen students, tried to keep them from enrolling, put them in rooms with nothing to do, deprived students of their services, and faked records to cover it up.”

I urge you to read Bill Quigley’s fine report on the recent  NAACP hearing and the history of New Orleans’ charters over the past dozen years.  In every way Quigley’s essay reinforces what I heard when I visited New Orleans in 2006. I spoke with the Rev. Torin Sanders, a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, which had already lost control of all but a handful of the public schools to the state Recovery School District slated to manage the charter conversion. Sanders described what he thought was the meaning of the seizure of New Orleans’s public schools: “We need to keep the public in public education. Bureaucracy has come to connote ‘slow’ and ‘barrier.’ I am against that as well as out-dated rules. But you can have a system without those things. We have thrown out the system. The only people who can make it when there is no system are those who already have access to resources.”