Fourteen Years Later, Andrea Gabor Examines the Meaning of the 2005 Seizure of New Orleans’ Public Schools

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in September of 2005, I was serving in the Justice & Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination, as the point person tracking and staffing work in UCC congregations to support justice in public education. My job was to help our churches support equal opportunity and access to quality education and to ensure that members of our congregations understood the importance of the First Amendment separation of church and state in public schools.

In the autumn and winter of 2005, our office worked with partners in New Orleans to advocate for policies that would protect New Orleans’ most vulnerable citizens during the hurricane recovery.  Early in the fall of 2005, it wasn’t apparent that the city’s public schools would be affected, but weeks later the state intervened to take over the majority of the schools under a Louisiana law that had been amended to permit the broad takeover. All of the school district’s teachers were put on disaster leave, and on March 24, 2006, all of the school district’s teachers were dismissed or forced to retire.

My job included writing a September, beginning-of-school resource for UCC congregations. Its purpose was to highlight primary challenges to justice in our nation’s public schools. To research the 2006-2007 Message on Public Education, I traveled for a week in July, 2006 to New Orleans to learn what was happening in the public schools of a devastated city. I talked with the Rev. Torin Sanders, a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, sidelined in the state takeover. I spoke for more than an hour with Brenda Mitchell, the president of the United Teachers of New Orleans, which had been rendered—by state fiat—incapable of protecting even long-serving, tenured teachers. I drove past the former Alcee Fortier High School—previously a public neighborhood high school with open admissions—now seized by the state and turned over to Tulane University to become the selective Lusher (charter) High School, which privileged admission for the children of the staff of Tulane and other universities. And I visited Benjamin Franklin High School, formerly a selective magnet high school, and now a selective charter high school.  While charter schools in the rest of the country were required to accept students through non-selective lotteries, in New Orleans, the emergency had created a rationale for exceptions that created a group of exclusive, selective charter schools.

What I learned during that week was that the majority of public schools in New Orleans—one of the poorest communities in the United States—had been deemed “failing” because of low test scores and that, due to that designation, the state and all sorts of players I did not understand were conducting a disruptive experiment with a new kind of school reform on a group of children whose lives had just been upended in every other possible way.  In October of 2006, Leigh Dingerson, for The Center for Community Change, published a profound resource exploring the same issues.  She called it Dismantling a Community. Later Kristen Buras published Pedagogy, Policy and the Privatized City and other research that helped explain, from the point of view of New Orleans’ teachers and students, what had happened.  But at that time none of us really had the language accurately to characterize what we had watched happening as public education was intentionally collapsed into some kind of experiment.

Naomi Klein helped with the definition in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, in which she described the sudden takeover of the public schools in New Orleans as the defining metaphor for neoliberal economic reform: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision. Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.  Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4… New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired… 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)

This month In the November, 2019, Harper’s Magazine, Andrea Gabor examines the New Orleans school takeover fourteen years later, from the perspective of history.  Who were the real players in the seizure of the city’s schools? How did the experiment work? Did the New Orleans state takeover improve the schools? And how has neoliberal school reform in New Orleans impacted what has happened across the United States in the ensuing decade and a half.  Gabor, a professor of journalism at Baruch College, also examined the history of corporate school reform in a 2018 book, After The Education Wars.

Who were the real players? Gabor explains: “The transformation of New Orleans into an all-charter city was spearheaded by a handful of large philanthropic organizations, and cultivating relationships with these institutions is often essential to a school’s survival.” Gabor identifies New Schools for New Orleans as the local pass-through agency, the gatekeeper for distribution of funds from philanthropies outside the city. And in New Orleans the big funders were the same foundations which have underwriting disruptive, neoliberal school reform ever since: “Since about 2000, the model’s chief proponents and funders have been three big philanthropies: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. (The Walton Foundation, which recently announced another $1 billion investment in K-12 education, may be the single largest charter-school benefactor in New Orleans, typically providing grants between $100,000 and $350,000 to startups.)”

Gabor describes how this sort of school reform works in New Orleans: “The system operated on a bottom-line approach known as the portfolio model, which seeks to manage schools like stocks in a Wall Street portfolio: the model rewards high performers (as measured primarily by test scores) with further investment and punishes poor performers by cutting off funding or by shuttering them. The promise of this model was that idealistic technocrats would run schools like businesses, emphasizing competition, financial incentives, and accountability…  Over one third of charters are run by large management organizations such as the San Francisco-based Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), which operates hundreds of schools across the country, including eight in New Orleans.”

What about eliminating the teachers’ union?  In New Orleans, explains Gabor, “The silencing of teachers was facilitated by Teach for America… Typically, new T.F.A. staffers were handed canned curricula and detailed rules on classroom management… While the new teachers were willing, initially, to work fourteen-, sixteen-, and eighteen-hour days, close to half came to the city with less than three years of experience. And in the schools that served the poorest students, most teachers lasted no more than a year or two. Ironically, today New Schools for New Orleans blames its declining test scores in part on what it calls a teacher attrition ‘crisis.'”

Authentic community engagement was undermined in New Orleans by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (B.E.S.E.): “In fact, the chartering process was designed to deny input by community groups.  Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, then-governor Kathleen Blanco signed executive orders suspending key provisions of Louisiana’s school law, including the requirement to consult with, and obtain the votes of affected faculty and parents before converting an existing public school into a charter school. Granted the authority to take over ‘failing schools,’ B.E.S.E. handed most charter-authorization decisions to the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers.”

Gabor examines years of test-score evidence and concludes that even based on test scores alone, the New Orleans experiment didn’t work: “The latest state data confirms that New Orleans test scores have stagnated or declined since 2013. This year, only four charter high schools in New Orleans scored above the state average in English and math—of those, three were selective schools. The vast majority of nonselective schools performed well below average for the state….”  Gabor also describes the limits of test scores as the measure of school quality: “The portfolio model’s approach emphasized test scores at the expense of other crucial educational goals, including nurturing children and fostering their creativity and citizenship. Charter schools responded to this pressure by subjecting students to intensive test prep, including spending thousands of dollars on private tutors, and by weeding out students who didn’t test well.  And some schools cheated.”

The New Orleans state takeover quickly became a model for other states to experiment with the seizure of low-scoring school districts, and Gabor updates the story to what’s happening right now. The list of philanthropic players has expanded to include Laurene Powell Jobs, John Arnold—once a commodities trader for Enron, and Netflix’s Reed Hastings: “Hastings and Arnold… went on to launch the City Fund, a $200 million effort to spread the New Orleans portfolio model to forty cities across the country. With Neerav Kingsland, an erstwhile head of New Schools for New Orleans as its managing director, the City Fund is building on familiar alliances and strategies. One of the City Fund’s first beneficiaries was an Indianapolis-based gatekeeper called the Mind Trust…. With the help of Gates funding, Mind Trust created a nationwide network of local gatekeepers and like-minded organizations to advance the education-reform agenda.”

During my own week visiting New Orleans back in 2006, I found what had happened to the schools extremely disturbing, but I struggled to see the big picture and to name what was happening.  It is important that writers like Gabor are putting a decade and a half of New Orleans-style school reform into historical context.  In January, Diane Ravitch’s new book, Slaying Goliath, will surely continue this analysis.

In her new Harper’s Magazine article, Gabor identifies the key players in neoliberal, corporate-style, accountablity-based school reform; shows how their ideology and their money undermined public education in New Orleans; and demonstrates how  school reform modeled on the New Orleans takeover has grown into a multi-state wave.  She also shows that the movement has been a failure.