Black school systems are treated like black men and women in America. Urban schools are broken up, experimented on and policed in efforts to improve them. The reformers expect students, teachers and parents to be grateful and accept test-score growth in return, just as black communities were expected to be grateful when crime dropped even as incarceration rates rose.
But finally, the same voices decrying the unequal treatment of black communities by the criminal-justice system are turning to the unequal treatment of black communities in school reform.
The Black Lives Matter collective—representing approximately 50 organizations—released an official platform last week titled “A Vision for Black Lives.” Its education section called for an end to the privatization of education and petitioned for more community control of schools. A list of demands included “a moratorium on charter schools and school closures.” The NAACP also took a stand against charters at its annual national convention by approving a resolution that calls for a moratorium on the expansion of privately managed charters. It has yet to be approved by the national board.
Zero-tolerance policies in the criminal-justice system are the first cousins of zero-tolerance policies in schools. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. African-American public school students are suspended three times more than their white counterparts. So it’s ironic that many in the current reform movement actually believe that they should be embraced by Black Lives Matter and the NAACP, even though many of the theories and practices that many of us are fighting against in the criminal-justice arena are still openly embraced by many charter schools: Sweating the small stuff, walking on white lines and no-tolerance discipline, all of which are not exclusive to charter schools but have certainly characterized the sector.
What took black activists so long to turn their attention to how black lives are discounted in school reform? One reason: The imposition of charters—which have expanded much faster in cities than in suburban and rural areas—undermined the power of black communities to fight back.
The charter takeover of New Orleans is a case in point.
When I accepted a role to run a charter schools network in New Orleans, I hitched a wagon to an existing effort of the University of New Orleans to live up to its urban mission to build capacity in its neighborhood. Equipped with a college of education faculty, student-teachers and external support, UNO was positioned to uplift struggling schools in the neighborhood we shared—Gentilly.
As the first organization under new takeover legislation to convert a traditional public school into a charter in 2004, the university agreed to return the school back to the New Orleans School District after five years with lessons learned. We were one of five charter schools that existed before the storm.
Hurricane Katrina upended this limited and careful foray into chartering public schools to see if doing so could improve outcomes. In the wake of the storm, the state Legislature passed a bill (Act 35), which changed its earlier definition of an academically unacceptable school, allowing for a radical expansion of the number of charter schools in New Orleans. In September of 2005, the board placed all school employees on disaster leave, meaning that they would receive no pay or benefits until the schools reopened.
Then, in December of 2005, 7,500 school district employees were officially terminated, and because of their varied evacuations, many did not receive official notification. Based on 2000 census data, nearly 5 percent of New Orleans blacks lost their jobs with that decision. On June 30, 2006, the UTNO collective bargaining agreement with the district expired, and the school board did not vote to renew the contract in a city with extensive union membership.
In December 2007, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, and the Broad Foundation announced their plans to provide several grants for three years to New Schools for New Orleans, New Leaders for New Schools, and Teach for America of Greater New Orleans. Instead of fixing the teacher pipeline problem that existed before the storm, the decision to expand these organizations made it worse.
The percentage of white teachers and leaders who were less likely to stay in the city increased dramatically. The Louisiana Department of Education eventually lifted the five-year requirement to return schools to the originating district. Charters were there to stay, while the number of black educators in the city dropped more than 20 percentage points after Katrina.
A measured, local effort to improve schools was taken over by a national agenda.
The changes to the schools were just one strand in a web of pervasive, institutional racism that defined how black residents were treated in the effort to rebuild. Viable public housing was boarded up and not replaced with sufficient alternatives. Police officers shot six unarmed civilians on New Orleans’ Danzinger Bridge days after Hurricane Katrina. Low-income residents lost access to affordable health care when the public Charity Hospital closed. Moreover, 1 in 7 black men are in prison or on parole in New Orleans.
Billions have been poured into the city to help bring it back and make it stronger than before the storm. However, 10 years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has approximately 100,000 fewer black people, the majority of whom say the city has yet to recover (compared with the majority of white residents, who say it has). Test scores may be up, but black residents are nearly as poor as during pre-Katrina.
We are not going to fire, expel or replace our way to a healthy community. A more effective strategy is to build a power base for the black community through quality, black-led educational institutions. Charter schools can be part of the solution, but first education reformers need to take a hard look at how they operate in black communities and decide if they really believe black lives matter more than test score gains.