Louisiana’s Statewide School Takeover Was Post-Katrina Disaster
(APN) NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — After Hurricane Katrina, the State of Louisiana advanced a statewide takeover of the Orleans Parish School District that has been a catastrophe of public policy, harming students, parents, voters, and communities.
Education advocates in New Orleans like Karran Harper Royal are distraught to learn that Georgia voters are facing a statewide referendum this November 2016 on whether to bring the Louisiana model to Georgia. They want to make sure that Georgians understand the lessons of the New Orleans experience.
On the ballot in November 2016 is a question of whether to amend the Constitution of the State of Georgia to allow the creation of a statewide school district to take over so-called “failing schools.”
True to Orwellian form, the district would be called the “Opportunity School District.”
But it is an illusion of choice where parents have to basically go out and shop for a school for their child on the private market. The result is that thousands of New Orleans students are spending hours a day on busses.
Meanwhile, the intown campuses of former public schools remain closed; and taxpayers are spending millions of dollars on transporting students long distances around Greater Metropolitan New Orleans every day.
Atlanta Progressive News traveled to New Orleans to learn first-hand about the New Orleans experience with statewide school takeovers and whether such a policy tool really poses an “opportunity” for Georgia.
In 2004, the Orleans Parish School Board operated 128 public schools.
In 2014, the New Orleans Recovery School District became the only urban school district completely comprised of charter schools.
Earlier this year, while APN was in New Orleans, those schools were “returned” to Orleans Parish School Board.
“What they call a return of control, they are returning a system of autonomous charter schools,” Harper Royal told APN.
“The [Orleans Parish] School Board doesn’t have the power, except to renew a charter or not. It takes a two-thirds vote to overturn the Superintendent, who was a charter school principal,” she said.
This lack of accountability undermines democracy, in that concerned parents, advocates, and other stakeholders have little to no recourse when charter schools fail. There are no intermediate mechanisms to correct problems short of yanking an entire charter.
“ReNEW Charter Schools did some terrible things with special education stuff and they still have their charter – their charter was not yanked,” Harper Royal said.
“A Perfect Storm: The Takeover of New Orleans Public Schools,” a short documentary by Phoebe Ferguson, documents how the State of Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education began plotting almost immediately to take over the school system after the Hurricane.
Louisiana had originally adopted Act 9, legislation allowing state school takeovers, in 2003, two years prior to Hurricane Katrina.
In the immediate weeks after Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast in late August 2005, the State of Louisiana took over the schools with no intent of re-opening them, but having charter schools open new schools instead.
Then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed an Executive Order removing requirements related to the formation of charter schools, in order to expedite this takeover by corporations and non-profits coming in from all over the country.
In November 2005, the Louisiana Legislature convened a special session for seventeen days to enable the takeover by passing Act 35.
Act 35 changed the definition of what a failing school was in Louisiana, allowing the state to take over more schools than originally intended by the State’s original, existing legislation on school takeovers.
There is no reason that such amendments could not be made in Georgia if legislators choose to take Georgians down the same slippery slope.
The original definition of failing school in Louisiana was below a score of sixty; the new definition was any school below the state average; this allowed the takeover of some one hundred schools.
And yet despite the takeover, the schools taken over by the state, including those taken over as charter schools, have performed no better than the Orleans Parish public schools that operated before Hurricane Katrina.
In the 2011-2012 school year, every single school operated by the Recovery School District received a grade of “D” or “F,” including the charter schools.
“If this is so great, you should see it in the community,” Harper Royal said, noting New Orleans has a 39 percent poverty rate, one percent higher than before Hurricane Katrina.
“New Orleans has the third-highest percentage of children not working or in school,” she said.
“With all the money [U.S.] Congress invested in New Orleans post-Katrina… When there’s an economic boom to a city, and a massive education reform, why are the numbers so dismal for Black people in the City, when they’re the majority?” Harper Royal asked.
“They used Katrina to do what they wanted to do in the first place,” she said.
“Charter schools have not been innovative in general – we’re back to the practices of the 1950s with strict discipline,” she noted.
“We gotta stop the language of failing schools. Conservative legislators… when you cut funding for education, you plant the seeds for them not to serve needs well. The tests just measure those lack of resources,” Harper Royal said.
“That’s their game plan: They destroyed the neighborhood schools. Kill the schools, close the schools, shuffle children around, open charter schools. New Orleans isn’t special. Atlanta isn’t special,” Harper Royal said.
PRACTICING THEIR IDEOLOGY
Big funders of the Louisiana charter school proposal include the Gates and Walton Foundations.
“When have you known the one percent to care about poor communities? Walton won’t pay their people a living wage,” Harper Royal said.
“This was a coordinated effort by uber-wealthy people in this community. Republicans never wanted a Department of Education to exist in the first place,” she said.
“It’s the same as the 99 percent and the one percent, but it’s being done by liberals. They are trying to do the work of billionaires,” she said.
“We know most businesses fail. So why run schools like a business, instead of a public service?”
This was “a way for them to practice their ideology.”
“What I support are sustainable community schools. You do a needs assessment and work with the community to find resources that meet those needs. It includes community, teachers, parents… Engage partners to provide wrap-around support,” Harper Royal said.
“Instead of parents choosing schools, it’s saying, these are the children we have and we’re gonna make sure we will meet their needs,” Harper Royal said.
The illusion of choice is really a shell game, or so many musical chairs.
Public education should be about “meeting the needs of the children who are there, and not the ones you wish you had.”