Photographs are seen inside the heavily damaged Lawless High School in the Lower 9th Ward Aug. 28, 2007, in New Orleans on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Katrina.

The mere mention of the Category 5 monster of a hurricane that barreled down the Gulf Coast and made landfall in the early-morning hours of Aug. 29, 2005, as a Category 3 is enough to retraumatize New Orleans natives who were forced to flee their homes in search of shelter.

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“The Storm,” as it’s called by many in pained tones, decimated the Crescent City, leaving an estimated 80 percent of it underwater after the faulty levees broke. Entire neighborhoods in New Orleans were destroyed, primarily in predominantly black communities (pdf), leaving 70 percent of all occupied housing units severely damaged or uninhabitable. The total damage along the Gulf Coast reached $135 billion.

Approximately 1,833 people died because of Katrina—1,577 in Louisiana, 238 in Mississippi, 14 in Florida, two in Alabama, two in Georgia. According to the Data Center, an estimated 1,000 of those deaths were in New Orleans.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency called Katrina “the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history.” For many evacuees, it led to unexpected and harrowing new beginnings in cities across the United States, mostly in Baton Rouge, La., Houston and Atlanta. For those who never left, trapped on rooftops or inside the Superdome, and for those who trudged back to pick up the pieces, home would never be the same.

Even as New Orleans has displayed remarkable resilience, the cultural and racial composition has shifted dramatically, and disparities, from incarceration rates to health care access, abound. Poor black families trickling back post-Katrina struggled to find some semblance of their former lives amid the rubble. They have since been pushed to the outer regions of the city while inner-city housing developments have been gentrified, and Section 8 housing is practically nonexistent.

According to the recently launched site KatrinaTruth.org, 10 years after Katrina, “the median income gap between Black and white households in New Orleans has widened by 18 percent from 2005 to 2013. The median white household income in New Orleans increased from $49,262 to $60,553 while the median household income for African Americans only increased from $23,394 to $25,102.” That compares with a $9,000 median income growth nationwide (pdf), illuminating that while African Americans experienced marginal economic growth in the United States post-Katrina, in New Orleans that growth virtually came to a halt.

In addition, 50.5 percent of black children in New Orleans live in poverty—higher than before Katrina; black women make 49 cents for every dollar that white men make; and 52 percent of black men in New Orleans are considered to be unemployed.

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Despite these immense hardships, children still have to learn. And through the psychological and emotional storms that continued to rage post-Katrina, black New Orleanians were faced with an already dysfunctional public school system thrust into complete and utter chaos.

Children were losing education hours as families struggled just to survive, and the upheaval paved the way for the takeover of the widely touted Recovery School District that today is being heralded across the nation as a model of reform.

Charters: Before and After the Storm

According to the Data Research Center (pdf), in the 2004-2005 school year, Orleans Parish public schools ranked 67th out of 68 districts in Louisiana in math and reading test scores. Sixty-three percent of public schools in New Orleans were deemed “academically unacceptable” by Louisiana accountability standards, compared with just 8 percent of public schools across Louisiana.

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The RSD had already been created in 2003 by the Louisiana Legislature to improve “chronically failing” schools. This entailed transferring control from the Orleans Parish School Board to the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Initially this included just five schools; after Hurricane Katrina, however, the Legislature passed Act 35, and the RSD took over the vast majority of schools in New Orleans.

Today approximately 92 percent of students in New Orleans attend charter schools; 70 percent of those students attend Recovery School District charters. As of the 2014-2015 school year, the RSD oversees 57 charter schools (pdf) operating in New Orleans under 24 nonprofit charter-management organizations. This leaves 14 charter schools, mostly high performing, with the Orleans Parish School Board, along with five traditional public schools.

Eighty-seven percent of students educated in New Orleans’ 80 public schools—OPSB charter and traditional public schools, RSD charters and several independently run charters—are black, according to the 2015 Data Research Center report “The Transformation of New Orleans Public Schools: Addressing System-Level Problems without a System” (pdf).

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Seventy-seven percent of students participate in a free- and reduced-lunch program, one of the most commonly used ways to measure poverty, and 84 percent are considered “economically disadvantaged.”

In the Recovery School District specifically, however, 93 percent of the students are black, 84 percent are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch, and 92 percent are considered to be economically disadvantaged, leaving almost all of the white public school students concentrated in higher-performing OPSB charter or traditional public schools.

If they can’t get into the higher-performing OPSB schools, white and middle-class families often bypass the RSD system by attending private or parochial schools. While the national percentage of students attending private school is 10 percent, in New Orleans, 25 percent of students attend private (pdf) or parochial school.

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By most conceivable numerical measures, the grand charter educational experiment has been a success. College admissions are up; ACT scores seem to be up, though critics, including Mercedes K. Schneider—researcher and author of A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education—have pushed back against the veracity of the claims; eligibility for TOPS merit scholarships has jumped; and cohort graduation rates have improved. Specifically, graduation rates for black males, the quick progress indicator, have surpassed both the state and national averages and now stand at 65 percent.

So is it time to celebrate the New Orleans charter school story? Not quite.

Ernest Johnson, FFLIC’s (Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children) statewide juvenile-justice-reform campaign and policy director, insists that data presented by the RSD does not tell the entire truth. He and others claim that there is a systematic effort to cleanse those rosy statistics of low-performing and “problem” students.

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“Charter school administrators need to be held accountable in a way that will actually tell the true story about if they’re doing a great job or if they’re not,” Johnson said. “Because there’s a lot of ways to push kids out; there’s a lot of disparities and special [education] kids who aren’t being educated in those schools.

“The families that we work with and their experiences with charter schools, it’s not even a school choice,” Johnson continued. “There’s no long-term outcomes, goals and measures that determine whether they’re successful or not.”

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To add insult to injury, the application process for many disadvantaged families has been extraordinarily difficult, said Thena Robinson Mock, project director of Advancement Project’s Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track campaign.

“Last year there were over 800 families who had to wait outside, in the sun, to enroll their families in school,” said Robinson Mock. “It was really disgraceful. There was some families who talked about how the experience almost felt like Katrina all over again, waiting and waiting in line, in August, to get resources.

“Because the charter system is very much the illusion of choice, there are really only a handful of schools that are high-performing,” she continued. “A lottery system has created this college education atmosphere where parents don’t have an equitable opportunity to enroll their children in school.”

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The “illusion of choice” criticism is one that Leslie Jacobs, a key architect of the Recovery School District, has heard often.

“I know you’ve heard there are these selective schools and kids can’t get in—that’s true and false,” Jacobs said during a lengthy phone conversation. “There were selective schools. There still are selective schools. Those schools are with the Orleans Parish School Board. They are charter schools, but they just converted to charters post-Katrina, and they are hard to get into. There’s no doubt about it. They’re some of the highest-performing schools in the state. I always say about choice, ‘I wanted to go to Harvard.’ Just because you want to go doesn’t mean you’re going to get in.”

Jacobs, who was elected to the OPSB in 1993 before moving on to serve 12 years with the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, represented a majority-African-American district and “won against a black candidate.”

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“I took three months off my job and I walked the entire district, including the housing developments,” she said.

It’s easy to tell that she becomes frustrated with the persistently negative depictions of the RSD, particularly when the data shows such immense gains.

“My seminal moment on the school board was when I was judging essays for the United Teachers of New Orleans … and I’m looking at these graduates’ transcripts and looking at their essays. And they had straight A’s in English and they could not write a sentence,” Jacobs said bluntly. “They had to come in with an essay about ‘Why Do I Want to Go to College,’ and they forget about being persuasive; they could not write a sentence. … [The OPSB] was warehousing kids in separate-and-unequal schools.

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“Over the last 10 years … any academic institution that has studied us, and anyone who is not angry because of all those other issues … acknowledges that schools have made incredible progress and made incredible progress for poor black students,” Jacobs said resolutely.

It is clear that the OPSB is positioned to serve primarily white and affluent students, while the RSD is responsible for “reforming” those students who are economically and racially marginalized. After all, “chronically failing” schools are typically defined by their most at-risk students.

Still, Nolan Marshall Jr., who represents District 7 on the OPSB and previously served as its president, said that these students are not being pushed out of high-performing OPSB charter schools.

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“Students with behavioral issues, special needs and disabilities need to be in schools that can adequately address their specific needs,” Marshall said. “It is ludicrous to think that every school can provide for the needs of every child … children are not being pushed or sent to lower-performing schools. Choice is real.

“We have processes that give equal access to all schools in a fair and equitable manner,” Marshall added. “Success happens when all schools are excellent schools and not getting into your school of choice is acceptable.”

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There’s one major issue with the public school system that many New Orleans natives still find unacceptable.

What Happened to the Teachers?

If one talks to critics of the RSD, the topic of teachers is bound to come up. In January 2006, all 7,500 employees of the Orleans Parish school system were unceremoniously fired, with most finding out while they were still seeking refuge in other cities. Of the dismissed employees, 4,600 of them were teachers, primarily African-American women who were veteran educators.

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In the decade since, the percentage of black teachers in New Orleans shifted from 71 percent to just under 50 percent, according to figures released in June by Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

As reported by Education Week, Adrienne Dixson, associate professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that it is the “most significant loss of black teaching talent since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling.”

In a newly released report, “Significant Changes in New Orleans Teacher Workforce” (pdf), Nathan Barrett and Douglas Harris take an even closer look at the shifting teacher demographic post-Katrina. The key points include the following:

  • The percentage of teachers with five or fewer years of experience increased from 33 percent to 54 percent.
  • The percentage of teachers with 20 or more years of experience dropped by over 20 percentage points.
  • The number of teachers who no longer appear as teachers in any Louisiana public school—the annual rate of exit—nearly doubled after reform.

This, in large part, is because nonprofit organizations, such as New Schools for New Orleans, the New Teachers Project and Teach for America, quickly staked their claim in the shifting educational landscape, raising concern even among students.

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In 2014 Glenn Sullivan, a graduate of New Orleans’ Lake Area New Tech Early College High School, penned an essay in the Washington Post criticizing the diminishing percentage of black teachers, writing: “Students do need diverse educational experiences, but that diversity doesn’t need to be about a teacher’s race. Hiring more white teachers is not the best way to improve education for students, particularly students of color.”

As previously reported on The Root in 2013, students at two New Orleans charter schools, G.W. Carver Collegiate Academy and G.W. Carver Preparatory Academy (pdf), both within the RSD system, staged a walkout and listed their complaints with the new workforce:

There are no black teachers. … Some of the teachers are racially insensitive. None of the teachers are from New Orleans. They can’t relate to us, our neighborhoods, or our community. They have no respect for our customs and culture, and simply want to make us more like them without understanding us and our background.

The widely accepted narrative is that the RSD fired the teachers, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The mass firing can be laid squarely at the feet of the Orleans Parish School Board. In October 2014, the Louisiana Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by the terminated employees against the OPSB, and in May 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider the case.

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“I was a CEO of a school that was the first school in the RSD [Capital One-UNO Charter Network],” said educational leader, author and New Orleans native Andre Perry, who, along with Harris, Christian Buerge and Vicki Mack, co-authored the previously referenced Data Research Center study (pdf) on charter schools post-Katrina.

“After the storm, an already bankrupt school system had to release its teachers,” Perry said. “They represented almost 4 percent of the total black workforce in New Orleans at that time, so you can imagine the economic, social and emotional wound that caused because teachers are traditionally the heart of, and pathway to, the black middle class. After that first wave of reform when teachers were fired, we’re scrambling to find teachers, literally pulling schools together; then national networks started to take root in New Orleans.

“A narrative was cast that new voices, fresh perspectives, innovation is going to save New Orleans,” Perry continued. “I say that narrative may not necessarily be true because many black people who were here before the storm operated successful schools. And many of the most successful schools are run by black people. So there is some truth to the narrative that this was a white-led movement, but it’s not the complete truth.”

Leslie Jacobs gives more details about the highly controversial mass dismissal, reiterating that RSD was not to blame and highlighting the diversity within RSD’s ranks.

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“The levees broke on Aug. 29, 2005. Orleans Parish School Board had so mismanaged their money by that point in time that the U.S. federal government required the state to bring in a manager of their finances or they were going to lose the tens of millions of Title [I] funds [pdf] because the OPSB could not account for their money,” Jacobs said matter-of-factly.

“On Sept. 15 [2005], before the RSD was a twinkle in anybody’s eye, two weeks after the levees broke, they put all of the teachers on unpaid leave retroactively,” Jacobs continued. “They did not give them severance, because they had no money and they couldn’t get the line of credit. [OPSB] subsequently fired the teachers, not the RSD, and when the bargaining agreement expired a month later, they did not renew it.”

Jacobs goes on to explain that teachers were told they had to take basic skills tests to be rehired into the charter system. “According to various sources, about a third of teachers failed the tests, and I probably believe that,” she said.

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Jacobs seems unruffled by the criticism, listing the RSD’s diverse workforce numbers.

“Seventy percent [of teachers] were black before Katrina; today it’s 50 percent,” Jacobs said. “The black population is down as well, and 50 percent would still put us in the top districts in the country [in percentage of black teachers]. Fifty percent of our school leaders are black. Fifty percent of our school leaders were in New Orleans before the levees broke. More than half of our charter board members are black.”

One of those veteran RSD leaders is Rene Lewis Carter, principal of Martin Behrman Charter School (K-8). Behrman is one of the charter schools in the Algiers Charter Schools Association. Because Algiers, which is on the West Bank of New Orleans, did not flood, there were veteran educators ready, willing and able to go back to work.

Carter, who was recently named Louisiana Middle School Principal of the Year, has led Behrman Charter to a B grade from the Louisiana Department of Education, with a higher percentage of its students at or above grade level in comparison with state and district averages.

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I was able to catch up with her last week, and she had nothing but good things to say about the RSD.

“The charter construct, because this is the only construct that I’ve worked in post-Katrina, has allowed me to do the great work that I’ve been able to do for the children of this city post-Katrina,” Carter said. “One of the things that I thought to do when we opened the doors here at Behrman, I hired veteran educators because I knew that I needed to bring healing to the children that I was serving, and they needed to make a connection with teachers who knew how to teach and had had that same Katrina experience.

“Over the years, our staffing here at Martin Behrman has changed,” Carter continued, “but because of the construct of charter and the autonomy that comes with this, I am able to choose the best-of-the-best teaching force at Behrman Charter, and that has certainly been a benefit here.”

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Even though Carter is a veteran educator—and made sure that she hired other veteran educators during Behrman’s earlier days—Jacobs believes that it is the charter construct and not necessarily experience that is the key to the RSD’s success.

“Were [teachers] fired in an incredibly disrespectful way?” Jacobs asked rhetorically. “Yes, they were. They got no severance, they got no thank-you. It’s true that if the reform had not happened and Orleans Parish Schools had reopened the schools, there would probably have been more veteran teachers rehired in the later years. We also would have never seen the improvement in academic performance and opportunities for our black students.”

On its surface, Jacobs’ statement—concerning the potential performance of black students and educators if the RSD had not swooped in to save the day—can easily be perceived as a study in white-savior complex. It could also be read as her frustration with the dysfunctionality of the Orleans Parish School Board in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

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The critical, underyling issue, however, is that the RSD’s definition of “our” seems to be limited.

The Most Vulnerable Children Need an Education, Too

According to a 2010 Children’s Health Fund study, “Legacy of Katrina: The Impact of a Flawed Recovery on Vulnerable Children of the Gulf Coast” (pdf), children displaced by Katrina were 4.5 times more likely to have symptoms consistent with serious emotional disturbance than did comparable children surveyed in a 2004 national study.

The study also indicated the following:

  • 60 percent of children displaced by Katrina to congregate settings, such as trailer parks or hotels, have serious emotional disorders or behavioral issues, and/or are experiencing significant housing instability.
  • Among those children whose parents thought they needed professional help for these problems, slightly more than half did not receive it.

In “10 Years Later: Did the RSD Make It Better?” (pdf), Barbara Ferguson of Research on Reforms, a research center that was “developed because of the urgency to collect data and analyze the findings to determine if the educational reforms of 2005 were working,” looked at the back-alley way that the RSD slid selection into its enrollment process.

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“Rather than allowing disruptive students to interfere with the education of other students, the RSD provided for the creation of selective charter schools where students who disrupt the education of others are not allowed to attend,” Ferguson wrote. “Thus, this 10 year experiment has shown that teachers alone cannot improve scores. It takes the intervention of restricting enrollment to only well-behaved students to improve schools.”

Ferguson then gave several examples, two of which are listed below:

  • Cohen High School had a performance score of 21.4 at the time of the takeover. The RSD operated Cohen as an open-enrollment school for five consecutive years, and Cohen’s performance score was only 28.2 at the conclusion of those years. The RSD then contracted with a selective charter operator, New Orleans College Prep, which selectively admitted students and removed students who were repeatedly disruptive. Its performance score is now 72.9.
  • John McDonogh High School had a performance score of 25.1 at the time of the takeover. McDonogh has remained an open-enrollment school. Its performance score has declined to 16.1.

In other words, the system was rigged, and the most marginalized, vulnerable children were being shoved to the back of the bus.

“There’s no community for them anymore,” said Karran Harper Royal, an education activist and parent advocate who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina and returned to a nightmare. “Families that used to live in the housing projects that all got torn down … now they’re moving constantly because they find that they can’t afford where they’re living, so these young people are now being disconnected.

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“So, yeah, they probably do go to school and cut up and act crazy,” Harper Royal continued, “and get suspended, but … things are so much worse if you are black and poor in New Orleans, and it is exacerbated by charter schools with no-excuses discipline policies.

“We didn’t need this kind of help,” Harper Royal added, her voice rising in frustration and anger. “I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago, and a psychologist said that she learned in crisis counseling not to make major changes in children’s lives after disaster. And what do they do in New Orleans? They totally uprooted these children’s school system. And she said to do this is nothing short of domestic terrorism. It’s like they totally came in and disrupted a whole community.”

Though it can be viewed as disrupting one system, it can also be viewed as feeding another.

So, What’s the “Alternative”?

“What we know is that the school-to-prison pipeline is an outgrowth of punitive discipline practices across the board, and that charter schools tend to implement some of the harshest zero-tolerance policies,” Advancement Project’s Robinson Mock pointed out.

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“A school is not supposed to turn you away if you’ve been suspended, but there is state law around expulsion, so if a student is expelled, that could potentially bar them from going to a state school for a period of a couple of semesters, which is a state law,” Robinson Mock added. “And so in those cases, students might go to either an alternative school, or you also will see students dropping out altogether if the expulsion comes at the high school level.”

About those alternative schools.

“These are F-rated schools that are extremely low-performing,” said Harper Royal, whose son graduated in 2014 from Lusher Charter. “So what [RSD] is doing, even to produce their appearance of high academic performance on test scores, is push out large numbers of harder-to-educate students. … You get expelled and you go to these schools, while … they market these alternative schools, or nontraditional schools, as a choice.

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“So, you know, a parent, if you’re tired of the school always calling you to come pick up your child, now he’s flunked or he’s overage. Well, why don’t you just ‘choose’ this program over here, or ‘choose’ that program over there?” Harper Royal continued. “And these programs are rated F, and parents don’t always know that.”

These educational inequities and injustices prompted the Southern Poverty Law Center to file a lawsuit in 2010 against the Louisiana state superintendent of education, the Louisiana Department of Education, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Orleans Parish School Board, alleging that the charter system was “failing to comply with their statutorily imposed duties to monitor, supervise, and remediate known problems with special education in New Orleans, and to ensure compliance with federal prohibitions against the discrimination of students with disabilities.”

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Finally, after years of continued educational neglect for marginalized populations, New Orleans public schools—specifically the Recovery School District because of its larger percentage of expulsions, suspensions and students with disabilities—were forced to make some serious adjustments.

Now, according to the RSD, students with disabilities are seeing gains. The growth in their achievement jumped from 18 percent proficiency in 2008 to 44 percent in 2013, “eliminating the achievement gap with the statewide average.” In March 2015 the RSD, partnering with the OPSB, announced that $1.3 million in grants would be utilized for students with disabilities.

Jacobs agrees that the changes were necessary.

“Early on in 2010, we had a real problem serving students with special needs,” Jacobs said. “[Some] charters were absolutely gaming the system. A family would go with a severe, profoundly disabled kid and a charter would say, ‘We’re really not equipped to handle your child; you need to go to another school.’ So what was put in place was our enrollment system called Enroll NOLA.”

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Enroll NOLA, also referred to as OneApp, has been an increasingly effective centralized enrollment process. According to the RSD, “all Recovery School District charters, Orleans Parish School Board direct run schools and BESE charters participate in centralized enrollment.”

The eight charter schools that do not are all run by the OPSB. Most of them are selective, high-performing, high-demand schools that some parents of economically disadvantaged African-American students say they are still “encouraged” not to attend.

Marshall says that the OPSB is working on transparency and making the enrollment process more equitable for a broader range of students.

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“All of the OPSB traditional schools participate in OneApp,” he said. “The schools that may be perceived as not being transparent are possibly some of our charters. We have a few charters that are select admission schools. The selection process is part of their charter agreement with the district, and it is administered by them with intense public scrutiny.

“Although there isn’t any reason to suspect unfair practices,” he continued, “we are modifying our policies to mandate that all charter schools be required to participate in the OneApp program upon the renewal of their charter contract.”

“The SPLC sued and people responded,” Jacobs said. “So when someone says they’re pushing kids outs, that was true,” Jacobs said. “When someone says they’re not serving kids with disabilities, that was true. But it’s also been pretty aggressively solved. If someone says the schools aren’t better, that was never true. They got better out of the gate.”

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Eden Heilman—lead attorney in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s case against all schools in New Orleans, both charter and traditional public schools, run by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the OPSB and the RSD—pushed back against that assessment.

“[The state of Louisiana] didn’t settle the lawsuit until 2014, so I don’t know what she means by they ‘responded,’” said Heilman. “The agreement doesn’t contain things that are already happening; it proactively contains things that are to happen.

“There were four overarching issues that we alleged in the lawsuit,” Heilman said. “Child-find failure, which basically meant that the schools in New Orleans … have a responsibility under federal law to seek out and evaluate kids who they suspected may have a disability; that was not happening. Our second major allegation were kids [with disabilities] were not getting their services. The third major issue was discipline, and the fourth major area was enrollment discrimination.

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“We are still having the same issues that led to this lawsuit,” Heilman continued. “We’ve had to continue to advocate on behalf of individual clients as the case has gone forward. The reality of what we see is, there’s a lot of the same concerns; it’s just coming from different and challenging areas.”

Robinson Mock, who said that it’s a shame a lawsuit had to be filed to get the schools in New Orleans—specifically those within the RSD—to serve their students better, is also not impressed with what, on the surface, appears to be progress.

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“We can’t celebrate some sort of victory unless we are really addressing the needs of all students,” Robinson Mock said.

Andre Perry believes that the exposure of the New Orleans charter system’s “design flaws” is critical to the city of New Orleans and the nation.

“If another city attempts to do all of these reforms at the same time, they will probably fail,” Perry said without hesitation. “Not only will they fail, special needs students will be at risk. Other vulnerable populations will be at risk … probably suspended and expelled because there is an incentive to seek out the smartest and least challenging students in a completely decentralized environment.

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“This new status quo is still not good enough,” Perry continued. “These folks are defending reform and saying, ‘Look, let’s keep doing this.’ If we keep doing this, we will not be good enough. A storm could barrel down the Gulf tomorrow; people are still at risk. … We need to keep placing pressure on reform to constantly address these issues.”

Karran Harper Royal doesn’t put much stock in the test scores, nor in the “illusion” of improvement.

“Parents have been reduced to consumers instead of community members trying to rebuild in their communities together,” Harper Royal said, with sadness in her voice. “People want to go just by an increase in test scores and a higher graduation rate and lower dropout rates, but there’s so much more that you have to look at in the lives of the people.

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“New Orleans has 52 percent black male unemployment. It shouldn’t be like that when you’ve had billions of dollars pumped into this city in the last 10 years. It shouldn’t be. So it ain’t no damn success. I’m sorry, but it’s not a success in the lives of black people; it’s a success in the lives of white entrepreneurs. And you can quote me on that one.”

While the numbers trumpeted by the Recovery School District tell a thrilling story of overcoming steep adversity through the aftermath of a storm, there are gaping holes in that narrative. We must also take into consideration the warehousing of less desirable students in low-performing RSD charter schools, as well as a substantially less transparent Orleans Parish School Board, which is largely running a school system segregated along the intersections of race and class.

When a top-tier education is framed as a privilege that only “select” people can access (coded language for “white and/or privileged”), while others are disproportionately suspended, expelled or given subpar “alternatives,” that is not helping our communities; that is hurting our communities and amplifying the message that all black lives don’t matter.

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It’s quite easy to be convinced by the numbers that the charter system in New Orleans has been a resounding success. There were several times, while researching this story, that I found myself impressed by the mountains of research that point to massive improvements, both actualized and anticipated, as I remained aware of how sophisticated systems of oppression can function, often in tandem.

The voices of the people tell the story, and what many of them are saying is that tokenizing and corporatizing the selection and admissions processes for black students across New Orleans is not the right answer—as subjective as “right” may be.

We must continue to advocate on behalf of a marginalized population wounded by the cultural incompetency of too many of its new educators, the fiscal neglect of its government, and the implicit and explicit racial bias they are being subjected to by the nation at large, because this we know to be true: “Select” public school doors may slam in the faces of our disadvantaged children, but private prison doors still open.

That’s not “reforming” the system; that’s honing the system.

There is no clear picture to paint about the charter experiment in “new” New Orleans, particularly when there is enough blame and praise to go around and come back again. It is a cultural and racial Rorschach test. What you see depends on what you’re looking for; and what you’re looking for largely depends on what you want to see—and why.

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Editor’s note: In part 2, “Follow the Money: How NOLA’s Charter School System Influences Both Economic Development and Injustice,” we look at white entrepreneurs who want a “safe” school district to encourage investment in New Orleans.