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.

St. Louis Public Schools: A Microcosm of the Destruction of Big City Public Education in America

Jeff Bryant’s history (published in Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column) of public schooling in St. Louis—including desegregation and the recent decades of corporate school reform—is a fascinating reminder that recent decades of anti-public, pro-corporate school reform doctrine was a much broader phenomenon than Bloomberg’s small school/charter experiment in New York City or the work of Betsy and Dick DeVos and their friends in Detroit. Although the local details differ, Bryant’s tale of St. Louis is also the story of Cleveland and Milwaukee and Philadelphia. While today we have been indoctrinated by proponents of a test-driven, high stakes testing regime to regard education in our poorest, most segregated big cities as “failing,” these school districts historically modeled society’s commitment to provide children with the best kind of education. Then racism and white flight intensified racial and economic segregation. Ideologues prescribed experimentation with privatization as the cure, but it hasn’t worked.

Well into his report, Bryant describes the years when I first became aware of something awry in St. Louis.  Suddenly in 2003, Alvarez & Marsal, a corporate “turnaround” firm was hired to run the school district. William Roberti, formerly the CEO of Brooks Brothers, was made acting superintendent.  Alvarez & Marsal set about closing public schools and expanding charters. Here is Bryant: “None of these outsiders had any education expertise… Roberti and his associates were intent on outsourcing school services and attacking ‘cost centers’ in the district.  Roberti outsourced the district’s school lunch program, computer education program, and building maintenance to private firms. He cut funds to the district’s special education services, curriculum development staff, teacher professional development programs, school counselors and social workers, and the district’s school buildings oversight… By 2004, at the end of Roberti’s temporary tenure, St. Louis had closed 21 schools and laid off over 1,000 employees.” And “financial problems the turnover artists never truly solved became the primary excuse for the state to take over the district in 2007, install an appointed school board, and strip the district of its accreditation.”

Bryant begins his story in 1897 with the district’s employing architect William Ittner to design and oversee the construction of new schools. Each had “a broad green lawn across the front, an impressive brick facade, and high arching windows to light the interior…The open plan used E-, U-, or H-shaped floor layouts and flanks of windows to allow sunlight to fill common areas and classrooms.  The designs emphasized large, open classrooms where teachers had more flexibility to arrange learning activities.  Students moved through sunlit hallways from classrooms to libraries and specialty rooms for art and music… Ittner designed 50 schools in St. Louis—48 are still standing….”  Many are now abandoned and in ruins.

But, Bryant reports, race has been an issue in the city, and the fate of the public schools today was cemented after WWII, with rampant white flight to 80 suburbs in the 1950s—90 suburbs today.  Bryant cites Richard Rothstein’s work, drawing “a direct line from residential housing policies made by the federal government to the isolation of low-income black children in American cities, including St. Louis…. By segregating housing and education, St. Louis’s civic leadership doomed many of the district’s schools to chronic low academic performance, Rothstein argues. Schools with high proportions of disadvantaged children, he writes, often have fewer and less-experienced teachers, higher concentrations of students whose learning is often impeded by the stress of poverty….”

Like other midwestern cities, St. Louis also experienced economic decline: “St. Louis went from hosting 23 Fortune 500 headquarters in 1980 to just nine in 2015.  While deregulation hollowed out St. Louis’s economy, Missouri state lawmakers attacked the city’s school funding… A recent analysis by EdBuild found that St. Louis schools have a cost-adjusted revenue per student that is 9 percent below Missouri’s average. The district gets only 35 percent of its revenue from the state.”

Then came the school reformers: “While racism, economic upheaval, and underfunding took their toll, the next wave to hit St. Louis schools was arguably even more destructive.” Missouri charter school legislation passed in 1998; the first St. Louis charter opened in 2000; in 2003, Alvarez & Marsal brought their corporate belt-tightening and school closures; charter growth boomed between 2008-2013;  and today 30 percent of St. Louis students attend publicly funded, privately operated charter schools.  As in many places, expansion of charters has hurt the public schools, in the case of St. Louis, because of a provision of Missouri school finance law: “When the state allots money to charters…. the state reduces the host district’s aid by the same amount, so a district like St. Louis, which funds its schools mostly by local property taxes, loses that revenue as well as their state aid.”

The St. Louis Public Schools have recently made positive accomplishments despite these enormous challenges. In 2014, after the district raised its graduation rate to 72 percent, posted 95 percent attendance, raised test scores, and  got its finances in order with a surplus, the St. Louis Public Schools regained accreditation.  In 2012 St. Louis schools added Pre-K for all and staffed the program with certified early-childhood educators.  There is now some talk of restoring an elected school board.

Bryant concludes: “Today’s education theorists may regard Ittner’s vision of schools as special places for learning and as icons of community identity and pride as a relic. But the lesson from St. Louis is that the promise of a neighborhood school for every child,  that would uphold great education and serve as an anchor of community identity, did not fail us.  We failed it.”

Please read Jeff Bryant’s excellent history of public education in St. Louis.  As a depiction of the forces that have, during our lifetimes, undermined the vision for public education across America’s big cities, Bryant’s report is much more than a local story.

Ras Baraka Wins in Newark: Victory for Baraka, Democracy, and Public Education

What happened in Newark, NJ yesterday should matter to you no matter where you live in America.  It is the story of the triumph of participatory democracy over a system flooded with money.  And if you care about the future of public education, you will be especially interested, because the fate of Newark’s public schools became the central issue in this campaign.  The winner, Ras Baraka, a high school principal, confronted the wave of  “corporate” school reform and privatization that has become Newark’s (bipartisan) status quo under  former Democratic Mayor Cory Booker and Republican Governor Chris Christie and his state appointed Newark school overseers.

According to Bob Braun, blogger and former 50 year reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger, “Ras Baraka, a high school principal and the son of a poet, yesterday easily defeated a Wall Street-backed promoter of school privatization to become the next mayor of Newark.  Baraka’s victory repudiated the policies not just of his rival, Shavar Jeffries, but those of Gov. Chris Christie, former Mayor Cory Booker, and state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson, who is trying to close neighborhood public schools and replace them with privately run charter schools.” Braun continues: “Wall Street financiers and hedge-fund managers—strong supporters of former Mayor Cory Booker—poured $3 million into the Jeffries campaign, including $300,000 in street money that went to young men and women in the city, many of whom apparently took the money and then urged voters to vote for Baraka.”

Mark Webber, who blogs under the name Jersey Jazzman, reflected last Sunday on the issues at stake in this race.  Here is a shortened and compressed version of his analysis: “Democracies allow for full participation in governance by all people, regardless of their class status; Newark, however, is currently being threatened with the loss of its autonomy simply because it is an impoverished community…  Democracies support the development of a middle-class; Newark, however suffers from segregation, taxation, and economic policies that all but guarantee that many of its citizens will remain mired in poverty…  Democracies allow citizens to direct the education of their children; Newark, however, allows its citizens no say in how its schools are run…  Democracies engage in elections where campaign financing is transparent and driven by the citizens affected by the elections; Newark, however, is engaged in a mayoral race dominated by shadowy interest groups outside the city…  Shavar Jeffries may well be a good man, but his campaign has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with our politics these days.  If Jeffries wins, it’s a confirmation that America’s cities—the ones where working-class people of color are allowed to live—are being ruled from the outside.  Jeffries’ election will confirm these cities’ institutions have been co-opted for cynical , self-serving interests, fully at the service of political machines and plutocrats.”

But Shavar Jeffries and the corporate investors from Education Reform Now lost this election.  Ras Baraka won.

Bob Braun reports that Education Reform Now, which donated heavily to the Jeffries campaign, is not required to list its specific donations, because it is supposedly a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.  Here, according to Braun, however, from its website is the list of board members of Education Reform Now: Charles H. Ledley, Board chair and an analyst at Highfields Capital Management; John Petrey founder and managing principal at Sessa Capital, formerly at Gotham Capital and Gotham Asset Management and co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform and chair of Success Academy Charter Schools in NYC; Sidney Hawkins Gargiulo, a partner at Covey Capital and big supporter of NewSchools Venture Fund, and Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies in NYC; Brien Ziet of Charter Bridge Capital; John Sabat of Cubist Systematic Strategies; and Michael Sabat of Sanford C. Bernstein.  Braun adds that Education Reform Now, “is a charitable organization—it solicits tax-exempt donations and is not supposed to engage in electoral politics.”

That this election was primarily a referendum on the One Newark school privatization plan of Christie’s appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson, is clear in this youtube version of a TV ad paid for on Baraka’s behalf by the Working Families Alliance.  If you watch it, you will hear Governor Christie twice declare: “And I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark—not them.”

In fact, Cami Anderson’s  One Newark school closure and privatization plan became so contentious that Jeffries was forced to distance himself from Cami Anderson.  According to Bob Braun, “Jeffries, a close associate of Anderson, finally did repudiate her plan but it was too late in the race.”

Anderson has refused to attend school board meetings for two months now and has spent recent weeks at national conferences outside Newark. There are rumors that she may be forced out.  It is known that the implementation of One Newark is in disarray.  The school district has repeatedly delayed announcing the school choice placements of children to their schools for next fall and has struggled to put together a workable transportation plan for a district that has until now relied on neighborhood schools.  Many parents have sought to keep their children in neighborhood schools and have refused to fill out school choice applications.  This blog has covered the school controversy in Newark herehere, herehere, and here.

Given the fiscal climate for poor cities and the power of money in politics these days, Ras Baraka will face enormous challenges.  But this morning we must celebrate the people of Newark, who voted to elect Ras Baraka and to protect their democracy and their public schools.