Follow the Money: How New Orleans’ Charter School System Influences Both Economic Development and Injustice

Greater New Orleans Inc. Tech Expo, 2014Greater New Orleans Inc.

In part 1 of our series on post-Katrina New Orleans’ public education and charter school systems, “‘Like Another Katrina’: The Charter School Debate Fractures New Orleans Along Lines of Race and Class,” The Root took a comprehensive look at the educational, cultural and racial effects of the charter school system, which rapidly expanded in the city following Hurricane Katrina.

Based on interviews with New Orleans residents, educators, activists, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Advancement Project, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, the creator of the Recovery School District, members of the Orleans Parish School Board and the latest available data, I was able to pull back the curtain on the impressive improvement numbers and take a deep dive into the heart of the story.


Still, when it comes to educational injustice—as with most injustices—it always pays to follow the money.

All About the Mighty (White) Dollar?

When speaking with Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., a “public-private group promoting economic development for the 10-parish Greater New Orleans region,” you immediately get the impression that he loves his job, loves New Orleans and is dedicated to making it a more diverse, equitable and, yes, profitable city.

“I’ve been back in Louisiana now nine years; my family is from Donaldsonville,” Hecht said cheerfully, “but I grew up in New York City and was living in Brooklyn before we came down here.”

Hecht quickly maps out four quality-of-life issues that have been challenges in attracting and keeping businesses and good jobs in the New Orleans region.


“They’ve been crime, corruption, flood and education,” said Hecht, whose children attend a charter school in the Orleans Parish School District. “Those are the four quality-of-life dissatisfiers. There’s been some progress made on all of them. Arguably, the most dramatic, has been what’s happened on the education side.

“Two of the key questions that we’re asked from every business that we try to bring here,” Hecht continued, “and we’ve brought about over 70 businesses here in the last five to seven years, they want to know: one, on the workforce side, is there going to be enough quantity and the right training for the workers so they can grow, because they know we’re a smaller market, and on the quality-of-life side, two, they want to know where are our kids going to go to school? If their employees are going to have to spend $5,000 for parochial school or $15,000 for private school for each child, that changes, frankly, the economics of operating in the New Orleans region.


“So being able to say to them that the public schools in New Orleans have reduced the failure from 62 percent to 6 percent, pre- and post-Katrina, is critically important,” Hecht added. “It’s also important that I can say to them that we had our kids in private school and we put them in public school and we love it.”


When I asked him if graduating classes from the charter schools are being offered job opportunities through the businesses that have been brought to New Orleans post-Katrina, he pointed to GNO’s World of Works program but was clear that he could not tell at this point how successful it’s been.

“One of the challenges of looking at the data right now, quite frankly, is it is too early to tell if what’s happening in the charter schools is going to increase access to the middle class,” Hecht said. “What I can tell you is that we, as an organization, used to only work with the two- and four-year schools, we now have started WOW, a whole suite of programs where we reach into the high schools to show them what future opportunities they have.


“We really need a longitudinal study,” he added. “We’re probably five years away until we’ll be able to see if it works.”

Despite this program and others like it, the whitewashing of New Orleans is evident. Business opportunities have mostly been made available to white entrepreneurs who not only are armed with a quality education, but also the capital and resources to put it to work for them.


“For New Orleans to be successful over time,” Hecht concurred, “it’s going to need to have a growing and accessible middle class that everybody participates in and that is reflective of the racial composition of the general community. Quality public education is the foundation of that. You can’t do it without it.

“The data that we are seeing to date with the failure rate [in the Recovery School District] being brought down dramatically seems very promising, and it is certainly one of the apparently positive attributes about the new New Orleans.”


The million-dollar question still remains, though: “Promising” and “positive” for whom, exactly?

“You Can’t Have Capitalism Without Racism” —Malcolm X

According to “New Orleans 10 Years After the Storm: The Kaiser Family Foundation Katrina Survey Project” (pdf), 53 percent of African-American parents polled think that the charter schools are a good thing, compared with 74 percent of white parents. Moreover, 14 percent of African-American parents polled said that charter schools were a bad thing, compared with 6 percent of white parents.


“You can’t avoid race when we talk about why there has been a disinvestment in [traditional] public education and why [it] has been starved,” said Thena Robinson Mock, project director of Advancement Project’s Ending the Schoolhouse-to-Jailhouse Track campaign. “We, like many cities, started seeing resources be pulled out of public schools once we had integration.


“To be a public school student [in New Orleans] is to go to schools that are predominantly African American,” Robinson Mock continued. “It’s no accident that we see a lack of investment in schools where the population is predominantly African American, and this interest in experimenting with this new system. We only experiment on black children.”

What troubles Robinson Mock and others is that 87 percent of black students attend public charter schools, compared with approximately 7 percent of white students, and that those white students overwhelmingly attend the high-performing, selective schools. It is strikingly clear that once again, black students aren’t optimally positioned to have access to the same opportunities as their white counterparts.


When looking at these numbers through a historical lens of black people in this country feeding a capitalist system that profits from their workmanship while severely stifling or prohibiting their access to ownership, a keen observer might note that New Orleans, due to its racial composition, and by extension, that of the charter school system, is prime real estate upon which discriminatory and racially disparate business practices can thrive.

“When we experienced the devastation of the storm, and we understand that with devastation comes reconstruction, capitalism kicked in and people found a way to invest in the society they wanted,” said Ernest Johnson, FFLIC’s statewide juvenile-justice-reform campaign and policy director. “So when they started to develop these charter schools, I think the intention was to look at opportunity for the culture of people who were coming here and the benefit to them.”


“There were times when we should have approved community groups to get a charter,” reflected Andre Perry, educational leader, author and former CEO of a charter school in New Orleans. “There should have been more incubation or support for black-led charter management organization.”

“They used capitalism to regain some of the structure along racial lines here in New Orleans,” Johnson added. “At a time when people were trying to recover, we didn’t have the opportunity, or the capital, to be a part of those conversations when they were happening.”


Hecht is well-aware that racial disparities in education negatively impact access to economic opportunities, and insists that Greater New Orleans Inc. is working to remedy that.

“We started a few years ago a nonprofit risk-equity fund because we realized that there wasn’t enough startup capital in New Orleans, not surprisingly,” Hecht said. “We looked around and we noted that New Orleans was doing really well in entrepreneurship … but the profile of the typical entrepreneur [here and] nationally is young, white, male. We realized that there was probably a huge amount of potential in both the city and the region that wasn’t being tapped on both the racial and gender basis.


“So we started something called Power Moves NOLA,” he continued. “We’re trying to have more inclusive innovation in New Orleans, but we think it’s a model that can also solve issues around the country.”


Inclusion in spaces where white people are already thriving may not be enough to level the playing field, at least not any time soon. And that failure to proactively invest in black communities in the wake of Katrina’s wrath strained an already weak cultural ecosystem, the ramifications of which are increasingly becoming evident.

The Lost Ones

Though Hecht proudly shared details about GNO’s World of Works, the program that aims to reach high school and college students to make them aware of future opportunities, how can one reach who isn’t there?


Today an estimated 26,234 people in the New Orleans metropolitan area between the ages of 16 and 24 are counted as “disconnected” because they are neither working nor in school, according to a recent Measure of American study, “Zeroing In on Place and Race: Youth Disconnection in America’s Cities” (pdf). Of that number, 27.5 percent of disconnected youth are black and 10.5 percent are white.

As Kristen Lewis and Sarah Burd-Sharp, authors of the study, noted, “Engaged young people from middle-class neighborhoods rarely drop out or drift away from the worlds of school and work. Disconnected young people tend to come from communities that are themselves disconnected from the mainstream by segregation and concentrated disadvantage, and young people’s struggles with education and employment mirror those of their parents and neighbors.”


When looking at New Orleans’ charter school system, which has a dismal record of serving black youth living in poverty and with disabilities, as well as exorbitantly high suspension and expulsion rates concentrated among that population, it’s understandable why people deeply—and culturally—invested in the community aren’t singing its praises when its most marginalized children are being pushed out of the education system and pushed into a criminal-justice one.

As I wrote in part 1, even when public school doors close, private cell doors open. Each year, close to “1,000 children under the age of 17 are arrested and pass through New Orleans’ juvenile-justice system,” according to the three-year strategic plan (Jan. 1, 2015-Dec. 31, 2017) released by the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights (pdf).


Key data points from the report include the following:

* 25.7 percent of youths appearing in Orleans Parish Juvenile Court were arrested for an incident that happened at school.
* 51.2 percent of youths prosecuted reported a substantiated need for special education support.
* There is a 200 percent increase in likelihood of school dropout rate when a child has been suspended once before entering the ninth grade.


Ninety-seven percent of children arrested (pdf) in New Orleans in 2014 were black, despite the fact that African Americans make up only 59 percent of the city’s population post-Katrina.


“These kids are pushed out through these archaic discipline policies,” said Karran Harper Royal, an education activist and parent advocate. “This is 10 years after Katrina. So when people say things are better and they want to look at it by the numbers … we have to look at all the numbers.”

Perry believes that despite the odds being stacked against black people, we have a way of surviving and thriving through it all.


“Black folks have always performed in spite of systems,” Perry said. “So never discount what people have done within the system. It is the kids that get on the buses for long periods of time. It is parents who are engaged. It’s the students who read books, a reform doesn’t do anything … black people are doing these things, both as educators and as consumers.

“That is a narrative that is lost because so many people are so into either defending or crushing reform. And both of those thrusts ignore black lives and black efforts post-Katrina.”


Despite reform critics, Perry says, a “traditional” educational system is not the answer.

“Privilege is privilege, whether it’s in a reformed space or traditional space,” Perry continued. “Public education has not served black people well, so we need reform. A lot of these things—autonomy, choice, having ability to hire and fire—these things are good for black people.


“What is not good,” Perry added, “is whenever you really don’t have a longitudinal stake in your own recovery and that, too, was happening [post-Katrina].”

Nolan Marshall Jr., who represents District 7 on the Orleans Parish School Board and previously served as its president, agrees that there are many factors being ignored in the charter school debate.


“The problems in public education are the result of many factors, and concentrating on any one issue will not lead to enduring success,” Marshall said.

“More important questions are: What’s wrong in this country that is causing public education to fail across the nation?” he said. “Do we have what it takes to address all of the issues that are to blame, or are we satisfied with the modest gains that we have been able to get by addressing a few of the problems?


“As much as we have accomplished in the years after Katrina compared to the rest of the state,” Marshall continued, “we are [still] in a state that is near the bottom educating children in comparison to the rest of the country and in a country that is falling behind the rest of the world.”

One thing is abundantly clear: Ten years post-Katrina, New Orleans continues to grapple with a storm of epic proportions. The future of New Orleanians’ children, their city and potentially the nation depends on how we all navigate through it.

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About the author

Kirsten West Savali

Mother. Wife. Writer. Journalist. Bubber's Daughter.