Continuing Crisis in New Orleans' Schools

Jordan Flaherty
Date Published: 
October 13, 2006


Last week I visited New Orleans’ John McDonogh High School, where students organized a press conference to call attention to the conditions at their school. At the school, which is one of 17 former city schools now under state control, security guards outnumber teachers, school lunches are sometimes served still frozen, and many textbooks and other vital supplies are unavailable.


The state-run school district began hiring teachers just weeks before the school year started, and is still short 21 teachers in its five high schools. “Our school has 39 security guards and three cops on staff, and only 27 teachers,” one McDonogh teacher with 250 students on her roll explained. Young, untrained, security guards were involved in three fights with students in two days last week, she added.

“Being at John Mac feels like I’m in prison,” one of the John McDonogh students declared to the assembled media and allies. “The bus ride to school feels like a trip from court to jail.”

Post-Katrina New Orleans has become a battleground in the national fight over competing visions for the future of urban education. In September of 2005, with the city evacuated and all the schools closed, with no parents or students or teachers around, suddenly anything became possible. Instead of making gradual changes to an existing system, there was no system, and virtually no rules or limits on what could be changed. “The framework has been exploded since the storm,” confirms New Orleans-based education reform advocate Aesha Rasheed. “It’s almost a blank slate for whatever agenda people want to bring.”

Before the storm and displacement, New Orleans had 128 public schools, 4, 000 teachers and 60,000 students. The system was widely regarded as in crisis. Three quarters of eighth-graders failed to score at the basic level on state English assessments. In some schools, JROTC, the high school military recruiting program, was a mandatory class, mostly because funding wasn’t available for other programs. Ten school superintendents in ten years had been fired or quit. Many parents, especially white parents, had pulled their kids out of the system -- almost half of the city’s students were enrolled in private schools and parochial schools. Advocates accused the most underfunded schools of functioning as little more than a warehousing program for Black youth.

While the city’s private schools saw almost 90% of their students return, public school enrollment is at fewer than 25,000, less than half the previous levels. For those that have returned, they are attending a system completely different from the one they left, what some have referred to as a grand experiment in school reform, with more than 30 out of the 53 schools open this fall transformed into charter schools.

In other words, it has become a system that now consists of a majority of publicly funded schools freed from many of the rules and oversight that previously applied to public schools in the system.

Transformed System

From the beginning, many saw the post-Katrina landscape as an opportunity to reshape the city. Days after New Orleans was flooded, The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank based in Washington, DC, was already advocating for vouchers and “market solutions” to the city’s education problems.

For advocates, the radical transformation of New Orleans’ education system has created a new field of concerns. They worry that the new administrations running the schools are inexperienced and unprepared to take over the New Orleans system. “They say this is an experiment,” Tracie Washington, NAACP lawyer and education advocate, explains, speaking about the plans of advocates of charter schools. “Tuskegee was an experiment. We have reason to be suspicious of experiments.”

The question of the role of the teachers’ union -- previously the largest and perhaps strongest in the city -- is another contentious issue tied up in the dispute over charters. The School Board voted in fall of 2005 to lay off all but 61 of the 7,000 school system employees, and in June let the teachers’ union contract expire with little comment and no fanfare. Those rehired at charter schools return without their union.

For many New Orleanians, the union represents an important Black-led political base advocating for justice within the education system. “Elites of the city may prefer the teachers don’t come back because they represent an educated class of Black New Orleans, with steady income, seniority, job protection,” Jacques Morial, community advocate and brother of former mayor Marc Morial, said at a recent forum.

According to education activists, students whose parents are able to actively advocate for them have been able to get into better public schools, but for those who have difficulty managing the system of applications and red tape, their options are reduced. “Suffice it to say that the old system worked for people with higher education, with more resources,” Mtangulizi Sanyinka project manager of New Orleans’ African American Leadership Project tells me. “It wasn’t that the system didn’t work at all, it didn’t work for poor people.”

“There is an access barrier,” Rasheed confirms. “In the old New Orleans, charters were an island in a sea of city schools. That’s no longer the case. There’s currently a big group of kids that don’t have a school. Some think it was one or two thousand in the spring semester. That’s a lot considering you had only 12,000 total enrolled.”

Pre-Katrina, thousands of kids every year didn’t pre-register for any school -- they simply showed up at their neighborhood school on the first day, and the school found them a place. Now, most of those neighborhood schools don’t exist, and those that do are no longer obligated to place students who just show up.

Crossed Boundaries

Nationwide, the fight over charter schools has crossed traditional boundaries of left and right, with many progressives supporting charter schools as a potential tool for community control of schools, and an opportunity to try education strategies that would not be possible through the common bureaucracy of public schools. Opponents see charter schools as a back-door strategy used by conservatives to undermine public schools, and to create a two-tiered “separate but equal” hierarchy within the public school system.

The struggle over what form the education system will take is also fundamental to the larger issue of who will return and when. At forums, at neighborhood meetings, and throughout the city and its Diaspora, parents are anxious. In Houston and Atlanta, displaced parents are asking if their kids will have a school if they return.

In the city, high school students at some of the most underfunded schools have formed an organization, the Fyre Youth Squad, to advocate for change in the schools. The group organized this week’s press conference, and many adult allies have attended the group’s twice-weekly meetings at John McDonogh to support the student’s organizing efforts
Students and their allies are fighting to not be left behind, but it’s an uphill struggle with more questions than answers. Despite all of the promises from charter school advocates, Tracie Washington, NAACP lawyer and education advocate, is suspicious of their motives. “If you kick me out of my kitchen because you say you can cook better than me,” she says, “then your gumbo better taste better than mine.”

Jordan Flaherty is a resident of New Orleans, an organizer with New Orleans Network and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. His previous articles from New Orleans are archived here. He is on now with a weekly radio show every Friday, Noon-2:00 PM CST on wtul 91.5fm. Listen online. This article first appeared in the Fall 2006 edition issue of Left Turn Magazine.

Other Resources for Information and Action


* Reconstruction Watch
* Common Ground
* People's Hurricane Fund
* Justice for New Orleans
* Black Commentator
* New Orleans Network
* Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children

Other Articles by Jordan Flaherty

* Organizing Lessons From One Year After The Devastation of New Orleans
* The Katrina Anniversary
* The People United: Worker’s Rights Organizing in New Orleans
* Elections Fever
* Guantanamo on the Mississippi
* Nothing Stops Mardi Gras
* Imprisoned in New Orleans with Tamika Middleton
* Privatizing New Orleans
* Loss and Displacement at the Calliope with Jennifer Vitry