10 Years after Katrina, Former Charter Proponents Speak Out About Low-Income Kids in NOLA Still Disenfranchised by Broken Public Ed System

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Writer Jenifer Berkshire exposes the long-term dysfunction of the New Orleans public school system in this Salon.com article, looking back to before Hurricane Katrina hit 10 years ago this summer and now to the increase in charters and testing that have completely taken power away from local families/community members- many of whom are low-income folks of color- and consolidated it in the hands of a few authorities.

She speaks with a number of early charter proponents who have seen the damage done to their students and have begun to speak out about the real costs of undermining public schools!

When Burel looks at the version of education reform that has taken root in New Orleans since Katrina, she barely recognizes what she sees. “What we have now isn’t my vision. Reform here has diagnosed children and families as a liability.” But again and again, the official theme of “measurable progress” was undercut by reminders of the real cost of what ERA director Doug Harris describes as “the largest overhaul of a public school system that the country has ever seen”: the 7,000 teachers whose firing was described as a wound that won’t heal; the shunting aside of special education students and English language learners, especially in the first years of the experiment; the loss of trust among New Orleanians who believe they’ve been shut out of any meaningful decision-making regarding their city’s schools.

“The test scores are up, but let’s be honest about what we had to do to get there,” is how scholar Andre Perry put it. “Don’t lie to people and say ‘it’s all good.’”

Many teachers and parents have expressed deep frustration and concern over the shifts in power. Stricter rules created by a handful of officials disproportionately target the most vulnerable students.

“If we don’t have black leaders in the mix, we’re just reinforcing a power structure that helped cause the situation we were in,” Perry told me when I interviewed him earlier this year. Here he was blunter still: “We can’t have a white-led reform movement in New Orleans where all of the decisions are made by three or four power brokers.”

These days she advocates for parents whose kids face suspension or expulsion as a result of ending up on the wrong side of the strict disciplinary codes that are now the norm at many of the city’s charter schools.

Teachers are seeing massive gaps in what they were promised with these charters and testing and what they’ve actually seen in their students’ abilities.

But choice on paper doesn’t necessarily translate into choice in reality. As Rasheed explains, the emphasis on test-based accountability—charter schools must increase student test scores or risk closure—means that New Orleans has ended up with a lot of schools that aren’t “wildly different” from one another, as she puts it. Many of the schools here embrace the same combination of long days, strict discipline and a heavy concentration on the core, and tested, subjects: math and English. “Schools are all under the pressure to make certain grades. As a school leader you’re going to look at what works in other schools, meaning what works in terms of getting the test scores that you need. Then that gets replicated,” says Rasheed.

If New Orleans is a free market of educational options, as its advocates like to claim, it is rapidly entering into its consolidation phase. Charters that have the most success raising test scores get to open new schools or take over existing ones. By next year, fewer than 10 of the charters in the Recovery School District will be stand-alone-schools. The rest belong to charter networks or national charter management organizations, including KIPP which operates nine of the RSD’s schools.

“I thought charters were the best. College readiness, world-class education—I bought it all. I thought ‘charters must be better than what we have because everyone coming down here is so much smarter than we are.’” She argues that eliminating neighborhood schools has also eliminated the power of parents to come together as part of a community.  “Parents are fighting individual battles with these schools and they’re all petrified of what will happen to their kids,” she says. Meanwhile, principals in the new autonomous landscape are more powerful than ever, functioning more like CEOs who report to hand-picked nonprofit boards. “That’s the power shift,” says Fajardo.

NOLA charter schools are some of the best examples of just how badly they’re failing our children and taking valuable resources away from those who need it most. We will not stand for an unjust system that prioritizes profit over people!

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