In the summer of 2006, not quite a year after Hurricane Katrina, I traveled for a week to New Orleans. At the Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ, I wrote an annual autumn publication for our churches on an issue of racial or economic justice in public schools that we hoped to highlight for them in that particular school year. I planned to write the 2007 UCC Message on Public Education (released in fall 2006) on what had happened to the public schools in New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane—the subsequent layoff of all the teachers, and the beginning of the charter experiment seeded by huge grants from the U.S. Department of Education, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others.
With a good map and a rental car, I made my way to a mass of interviews I had set up with parents, former teachers, the former president of the teachers’ union, parent advocates, a civil rights attorney, a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, members of Beecher United Church of Christ, and public education advocates who had been identified to me. My trip changed me. New Orleans was still completely devastated, and the implications for the city’s poorest citizens were catastrophic. I did not want to believe that in the United States, politicians would use a situation of massive devastation to undertake an education governance experiment on poor families and their children.
Most of the people I spoke with were still numb with shock. Many were working during the day and returning at night to pull the walls apart in their houses—to “gut them out” as it was called—so they could begin rebuilding, but almost nobody had reached the rebuilding stage. One elementary school I saw in New Orleans East remained windowless, with weeds so high they tangled wildly over the roof. Some public schools that had not even been seriously damaged were shut down without being repaired. Fortier High School, an historic neighborhood high school, had been taken over by Tulane and other universities and turned into Lusher Charter High School, a place where the children of faculty at the area’s universities got preferred entry and most neighborhood adolescents were no longer welcome. There were a lot of questions about the new Algiers Charter School District. Few people could cut through all the deals going on to figure out what was really happening, but everybody felt they had lost the institutions they counted on to stabilize life for their children at a time when adults and children alike needed such institutions to cling to.
In the years since that summer I have done my best to keep up with ensuing changes in the schools of New Orleans, but the rhetoric and the manipulation of data by the Recovery School District (RSD) and the Louisiana state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education have made it incredibly difficult to get any sense at all really, apart from anecdotal evidence, of the ongoing reality for the children of New Orleans and their parents.
In a new piece published yesterday in the weekly newsletter of the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant describes what has become a serious issue not only in New Orleans but also in public education policy generally in the United States: “Juking the stats is a practice now so ingrained in the way education solutions are posed to the public that examples are rampant. But anyone who wants to have a genuinely honest discussion about education policy based on the real facts of the matter—and not statistical distortions achieved through gross manipulation and ‘policy speak’ that covers up realities on the ground—needs to constantly question what policy leaders and their scribes in the press are foisting off as ‘information.’ An especially egregious example of ‘juking the stats’ is the way school administration in New Orleans—where, basically, the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina was used as an opportunity to summarily fire school teachers and turn over the majority of schools to privately managed charter school operators from out of town—is now being marketed to the entire country as a ‘solution’ for public education everywhere.”
This summer, 2014, as the Recovery School District becomes almost entirely charterized without any traditional public neighborhood schools left this fall, there has been considerable press but—again—not much solid information. Lots of promoters of school choice want everyone to believe New Orleans is the model for the rest of the country—a fully charterized mass of schools from which parents can choose. Finding and assembling hard information has, however, been virtually impossible.
In The Truth about the New Orleans School Model, Bryant explains just how those in charge have been “juking the stats.” Quite recently Bryant wrote a piece about New Orleans, only to have his publisher receive a letter from Zoey Reed, Executive Director of Communications and External Affairs at the New Orleans Recovery School District. Ms. Reed demanded corrections to what she alleges were errors in the piece Bryant had published.
In yesterday’s article, Bryant publishes Ms. Reed’s demand for corrections followed by his own response to her. His careful response to each of her demands comprises just the sort of analysis I’ve been looking for for a couple of years. Bryant patches together data from several sources to confront the lies being disseminated to create the myth that New Orleans has become a model for Detroit and Chicago and Milwaukee.
Bryant points out that one reason it appears that students’ academic achievement has improved is “that from 2012 to 2013 the state changed the formula and scale for measuring school performance, which artificially inflated RSD’s scores.” Second, many of New Orleans’ charters have submitted inadequate data to be rated or are recently opened and not rated because they are new. That means that boasts about overall school improvement do not include data from more than half of New Orleans’ current charter schools. Third, scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have not risen significantly. Fourth, an “official LDOE (Louisiana Department of Education) report now ranks the New Orleans Recovery District at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts in student performance.” And finally the school district declined in enrollment in 2005 from 68,000 students to 32,000 students. It has now climbed up to 42,000, but the group of children being tested is not the same as before the hurricane. Bryant also criticizes the application process for school choice, which he contends does not provide real choice for the majority of families.
It is a complicated story, but I urge you to read Bryant’s important piece. If you like, skip the reprinting of the letter from Zoey Reed of the Recovery School District. Then read Bryant’s response very carefully. The goal is not for you to remember all the details about how data has been manipulated to make it appear that school achievement is soaring in New Orleans. It is, however, important to recognize that creating a mass of charter schools—each reporting to its own board—and laying off all the experienced teachers in New Orleans has been neither a solution for the challenges being experienced by children living in concentrated poverty nor a quick fix for their schools. Bryant has pulled together enough hard information about what’s happening in New Orleans to remind us all that we shouldn’t believe everything we are being told by the ideologues who are juking the stats.