The Struggle for New Orleans' School System

Jordan Flaherty
Date Published: 
April 1, 2006


The Struggle for New Orleans’ School System

Published on: April 01, 2006

Post-Katrina New Orleans has become a battleground in the national fight over competing visions for the future of urban education. Last September, 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 school system 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, spring 2006 saw only 20% of public students return. 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 a total of at least 30 out of the 35 schools opening 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 the fall to lay off all but 61 of the 7,000 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. Add to that the fact the no one knows just how many students will be back for the fall semester—recent estimates place the number at 30,000, almost three times the number as the spring semester, but still half the pre-Katrina numbers—and you have a recipe for chaos.

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.

Advocates are attempting to fight for the students that will 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 an editor of Left Turn Magazine and a community organizer. He lives in New Orleans.