Project: Restarting Public Schools in New Orleans
Main Image: Restarting Public Schools in New Orleans
Ralph Adamo investigates the public education system in New Orleans.
Ralph Adamo

Ralph Adamo researched and wrote about the recovery of the New Orleans public school system. Below, he details some of his findings:

New Orleans had been experiencing a long-term, slow-motion failure in its public education institutions for a number a years, arguably stemming from the city's inability to deal with desegregation in a civil and humane way in the 1960s. White flight and the creation of segregation academies contributed to the decline, as did institutional racism and decades of civic failure to come to terms with issues of race and class that divide the city. In the 1990s, with the rise of voucher talk (an especially vivid subject in a city where a large percentage of the population attends Catholic schools), the charter school movement, and the decline in public funding, state politicians (especially Republicans) began casting about for ways to change the status quo. Among the failed experiments were the hiring of a Marine colonel with no education background to be New Orleans Public School Superintendent, and then of a traveling-medicine-man school CEO-type for that job once the colonel had departed. There was no appreciable improvement before he resigned (months before Katrina), and increasing pressure on the system from the unfunded mandates of the No Child Left Behind hoax.

Months before Katrina, the accounting firm of Alvarez and Marsal, which had produced ambiguous results during its earlier takeover of the St. Louis public schools, was hired to "straighten out" our public schools. When Katrina hit, A&M were the de-facto leaders of the public schools. Between them, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the state superintendent, certain state legislators and the "reformer" wing of the Orleans Parish Public School Board, many odd decisions were made. Among them was to shut down public schools in the city for all of 2005-06, to fire all school personnel (including nearly 5,000 teachers), and to invest in legislative action to have the state take over all but a handful of the city's 130 schools. Most of those remain closed. Those not taken over or that had performed well prior to the storm reopened as charter schools in early 2006. There was a sense in the first months after Katrina that perhaps a majority of the African American population (who constituted more than 90 percent of the public school population) would not return, or would not be able to return, or—as many still believe—would be prevented from returning. That led to the notion that all of the schools that reopened would be partially privatized, mainly as charter schools and many of those run by out-of-state, for-profit entities. It didn't happen that way. No neat and easy solution presented itself, though many new nonprofits—heavily funded by corporate and right-wing interests—did emerge to help guide the recovery.

Those schools not chartered, yet still required due to the influx of people—many of them the returning poor—were lumped into something called the Recovery School District (RSD). Under state control, it was run by a state education department bureaucrat, poorly funded and badly served in all areas from curricula to food vending and security services. The 2006-07 school years was a disaster in those 22 schools, while results of the school year for many of the charters were more positive, though among them can also be found many ambiguous outcomes.(These are among the areas still needing investigation.)

My original proposal was to look at the emerging school recovery in light of the past and the ideological agendas driving much of the recovery. While I remain engaged in that task, I am also attempting to follow the complex developments, especially within the RSD, which begins the year under new management, as does the state department of education itself. More money appears to have materialized to deal with the enormous logistical and educational challenges facing the RSD. One question that still needs answering is where that money is coming from and where it was last year, when the opportunity for education for 10,000 kids from the city's underclass was squandered. Many other issues remain, including the many consultants making huge fees from the schools, governance (especially of the charter schools), transparency and accountability (in very short supply since the state takeover), the deliberate and ongoing elimination of the rights to organize and bargain collectively for school workers, and the complex questions involving real estate, FEMA, and local politics. There are questions within all these, and yet more questions beyond them. Among the most pressing is how any of these matters are being manipulated and monitored by persons and entities at the national level, very invested in certain outcomes here in New Orleans.