Squeezing Public Education: History and Ideology Gang Up in New Orleans
Families who returned to New Orleans after the storm find they are navigating a massive education-privatization experiment that puts poor students at a serious disadvantage, and shows how broken the school system really is. In this article from the summer 2007 issue of Dissent magazine, Ralph Adamo, a former school teacher, investigates.
Image: Restarting Public Schools in New Orleans
Ralph Adamo

When Hurricane Katrina (or, more accurately, the failure of the levees) washed away the New Orleans Public Schools (NOPS) at the end of August 2005, there was relief in many quarters. Within days of the storm, the acting public school superintendent, Ora Watson, declared that the "fiscal crisis of the New Orleans Public Schools" was now over. In hastily assembled meetings, members of the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), state and local politicians, and leaders of the state's education bureaucracy convened to examine the situation. Representatives of the charter school movement, as well as providers of ancillary education services and materials, also convened. The chance to recreate public education in New Orleans from the ground up was an irresistible consequence of Katrina, as well as a dream come true. Before the first waves of refugees began returning to the drowned city, these newly energized social engineers had decided that no public school would reopen (though public schools did open relatively quickly in the neighboring parishes of Jefferson and St. Bernard); that all 7,500 employees of the system (the majority of them teachers) would be terminated; and that whatever schools did open would be charter schools, operating under the aegis of either BESE or NOPS, depending on the type or timing of the charter application.

The chance to recreate public education in New Orleans from the ground up was an irresistible consequence of Katrina, as well as a dream come true.

But that goal proved problematic on many counts, necessitating the creation of something called the Recovery School District (RSD), an arrangement by which the state took direct responsibility for running the 107 (far fewer were actually reopened and run)—out of approximately 120—schools deemed to have been "failing" at the end of the last testing period. The Recovery School District would wind up being the educator of last resort, an infant stepchild of the new order.

Some Background

Many elements came together to create the crisis that everyone agrees embroiled the public schools in the years leading up to Katrina. Lacking aggressive oversight and consistent leadership, the administration of the public schools seemed unable to do its job on many levels. (And one would have to return to the bad faith, racist politics, and failures of sense and civility that surrounded the racial "integration" of the schools in the 1960s to begin the story of their demise.)

Even in the public schools that everyone has agreed to call "failed" (though the catastrophe was system-wide), some teachers taught well, working beyond their pay grades, providing supplies out of their own pockets (to make up, ultimately, for what was being stolen at the administrative end), refusing to allow those students whom they could reach to fail. Some principals displayed heroic character in standing up for their students and teachers. Some students displayed a heartbreaking thirst for the immediate and long-term benefits of education.

Of course, there were teachers who had either never been well qualified for their jobs or who had given up and retired in place. That there were venal principals and craven administrators is also obvious. That many students were beyond ordinary teaching before they even arrived at their desks may also be true, many in this community having been diminished and discarded by the economic and social collapse of so many families since the realignments of the Reagan era. The much-maligned union (United Teachers of New Orleans or UTNO) may have enabled some poor teachers to continue; but it also provided insulation from the caprices of the powerful, as well as welcome benefits to the hardworking teachers. The destruction of the union following Katrina remains a vexing problem for many of those who have returned to the classroom, under whatever aegis they operate. Without it, there is no recourse, no objective standard for defending against harassment or unfair labor practices by charter or RSD administrators or the remaining NOPS administration, now in charge of five selective-admission schools.

When things turn bad within a system, there are always elements within and without ready to implement New Plans. The demise, in the late 1990s, of one of NOPS's least successful superintendents, Morris Holmes, provided an opportunity to civic establishmentarian (read, the business community) types long hostile to the professional leadership and rhetoric of career educators. They would try something new: bringing in a superintendent with no background in education, a retired Marine colonel from New Orleans, Alphonse Davis, whose father was a long-term custodian in the public schools. This innovation was engineered by an outfit calling itself the Greater New Orleans Education Foundation, one of whose leaders, Paul Pastorek, an attorney with the old-line Republican law firm of Adams and Reese, had been appointed to BESE by then-Governor Mike Foster, a Republican. Pastorek defended Colonel Davis's administration as it sank beneath waves of disorder and public humiliation. When the longtime state superintendent of education, Cecil Picard, died in February (Picard is the one who is said to have declared that no school would open in Orleans Parish following Katrina that was not a charter school), Pastorek was selected to replace him. His term began this March, and he will serve until a new governor is elected in 2008. As of now, expectations are that any new governor would reconfirm the appointment. (Given that the majority of those two hundred thousand or more souls still evacuated to other states and unable to return to the region are Democrats, the Republican Party will probably grab the state house, currently held by Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat who has decided not to run for reelection. The most paranoid among political observers believe the roadblocks preventing the return of the poorest evacuees are not accidental.) Pastorek's salary is $286,000 a year, plus allowances of $50,000 for housing and $20,000 for automobile—this in a state where the average teacher salary is $10,000 to $15,000 below the boss's housing allowance.

A Digression

I don't usually make comparisons between the U.S. government's response to Hurricane Katrina and its acts in Iraq, but some comparisons are hard to escape. Many of the same contractors have enriched themselves there as well as here; many of the same mistakes, based on ideology, have screwed up both locations. Chief among the ideologically driven errors is the conviction that the "private sector" is more able than the public sector to accomplish things that are, traditionally, the public sector's domain. Among the vendors who have profited in Iraq are many of the same corporations that, with mixed results, provided government-contracted services to disaster-struck New Orleans. For example, Blackwater was everywhere in evidence in the days following Hurricane Katrina—more present than the National Guard, according to some observers—a faux military presence that bullied and alarmed those who had returned to the city early to see the damage and begin the period of triage. At the center of the charter school movement, many here believe, is the profit motive, especially for national vendors providing construction, food services, security guards, and insurance to individual charter schools, consortiums of charters, and to the RSD. In replacing the system they despised, the advocates of limited government have created fields of profit for the private sector, while frequently delivering shoddy services and unfit products. Many of the charter schools themselves are in the hands of chartering entities with national profiles, KIPP and Mosaica among them. Thirty-one of the fifty-six schools that are open here now are charter schools, run by twenty-three organizations. The bottom line is that more than half the public school students in New Orleans attend charter schools, a higher percentage than anywhere else. Now, instead of centralized bad judgment, we have diversified bad judgment, with occasionally common results.

One egregious example of waste and bad judgment, made possible by Bush-administration FEMA rules and policies, required contractors to empty all schools of all contents (not a completed process—some of the most badly flooded schools remain neighborhood hazards with their rotting supplies and unsecured access). In many cases, the equipment—computers, desks, books, and other supplies still in wrappers as they'd been left at the end of the second week of the 2005 school year—was bulldozed out of dry buildings and tossed into dumpsters. All contents had to go, we were told, even those obviously not damaged, to guard against the threat of lawsuits by parents, should children returning to those schools encounter mold. As a former teacher, I have to say that any mold in the building where I taught, an unflooded uptown campus, predated Katrina. Still, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of materials were tossed away in my old school and in scores of other schools around the city. The contents were then replaced, badly by the accounts of many teachers, with cheap goods, at government expense, by private vendors under an arcane FEMA formula.

Back to the Story

When the Colonel failed and fled in 2002, and after an interim superintendency by the then-chancellor of the University of New Orleans (soon to be forced to resign that position due to a tendency to co-mingle UNO Foundation funds with his own personal needs), yet another new savior was found for the system, another career education bureaucrat from elsewhere named Tony Amato. His tenure was politically stormy, unsuccessful in both financial and education reform, and it ended on the eve of Katrina with his abrupt resignation. Also on the eve of Katrina, there came riding into town (summoned by the state education bureaucrats and the same mess of "good-government" types that had given us the Colonel) the fix-it firm of Alvarez and Marsal, accountants whose specialty is downsizing failing businesses and sometimes "saving" them at the expense of their product quality. They had been through the school system of St. Louis a couple of years earlier, performing tasks similar to the one set before them here: to get the finances under control. They were on site when the hurricane struck, and as a result, their mission expanded widely and deeply, into the very fabric of the teaching enterprise. In St. Louis, the lead partner, Bill Roberti, managed to have himself named superintendent, but in New Orleans, Roberti's lack of education credentials rendered him statutorily unqualified to serve. (Those qualifications had been waived for the Colonel, an error even these ideologues were loath to repeat.) Instead, Roberti became the de facto head. This proved to be a minor inconvenience, given the weakness of the acting superintendent, though it interfered with A&M's modus operandi of gaining control through the temporary insertion of their own people in the chief administrative offices. A&M folks did come to occupy key posts below the level of superintendent. (It is worth noting that A&M's St. Louis experience was one of its primary claims on the New Orleans job. Not only was its tenure in that city consistently dogged by controversy and dissention, but the long-term results, recently documented in news reports and education studies, suggest that that school system is now in worse shape than it was before A&M's arrival.)

Between its initial NOPS contract, subsequent renewals, additional contracts—one rather small with a charter school cooperative on the city's west bank, one very large, approximately $30 million, with RSD that extends for another three years—Alvarez and Marsal has benefited to the tune of more than $50 million from the catastrophe in New Orleans.

Arriving on the scene just a few months before the storm, over the objections of the few populist members left on the NOPS school board, A&M had already begun closing schools and laying off personnel, some of them teachers, as the 2005 school year began. Its original charge had been to straighten out what had become an intractable financial mess, apparently exacerbated by each in the quick succession of failed superintendents, a mess that included missing money, convoluted payroll issues, accounts that were hard to find, much less balance—stuff that you might want some good accountant to clear up. As it happens, the accountants wound up working with the FBI, and a number of people, mostly at lower levels, went to jail.

But once the floodwaters inundated the city and began their long marination of many of its school buildings, A&M joined state administrators to bypass the elected school board and make some astonishing decisions. Among them was the termination of all employees, with compensation only for the two weeks of August that had been worked before Katrina (compensation that arrived by Western Union anywhere from three to eight weeks late). The decision to open no school for the academic year—even though most of the uptown schools and all of the west bank campuses had been spared flooding—appears to be the key to the great experiment envisioned by those hostile to public education (and government in general when it was not benefiting their corporate holdings), none of whom ever had or ever would have kids attending public schools. (Pastorek's three children attended private schools, as have the children of most BESE and even school board members.)

The great experiment had begun. With seat-of-the-pants planning, with no community input, and against the objection of a smattering of political and social leaders, the state, Alvarez and Marsal, and the cast of the Greater New Orleans Education Foundation (working under new and different organizational names) brought us a new dawn of all charter schools all the time. Or that was the plan, abetted by the national charter school movement; right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation; and the libertarian or "market-liberal" Cato Institute, one of whose members crowed at a public forum in February, "We got rid of the school board! Anyone interested in market-driven education should be watching New Orleans." Indeed. A flood of corporate foundation money poured in to help the representatives of the (market-driven) movement to get their schools chartered and staffed with a whole new kind of teacher (that is, young, inexperienced, and from somewhere else).

What's Wrong with Charter Schools?

There's not necessarily anything inherently wrong with charter schools. One or two had even struggled usefully into existence prior to Katrina. My main concern is not the same as the populist one frequently voiced, that they siphon off the "best" students and are therefore "elitist." If there were such a thing as a level playing field, if the marketplace had egalitarian dimensions and common expectations, the notion of a loose confederation of schools with equal access to money, to students, to other resources would have greater appeal. And it is a fact that currently many of the charter schools seem to be doing a pretty good job, especially those that in their earlier incarnations as city-wide access or magnet schools were doing a good job already.

BESE member Leslie Jacobs of New Orleans and others often recite the mantra "market-driven education," as if it were an obvious good in itself. The well-known flaw in that thinking is that not every consumer is equally well placed psychologically, educationally, culturally, and certainly financially, to approach the market on anything like an equal footing. In a city like ours, where generations have languished in poorly run schools, in dead-end jobs, or within a network of government programs and an underground market economy, there are people who simply cannot make such an educational marketplace work for them. Even assuming that they could clear the hurdles of finding the right school, fulfilling its requirements (whether they be testing or some form of parental commitment), and enrolling a child, they are then faced with the requirement (in almost every charter school, including those that claim to have no admission requirements) that their child maintain levels of performance and discipline or leave the school.

As Tulane history professor Lawrence Powell noted in scathing remarks about the laissez-faire approach to the rebuilding of the city, "Markets are all about coordinating expectations." That is one thing none of the planning efforts managed to accomplish with regard to education, and as a result, when the school year began in fall 2006, we saw a spectacle of confused and harried parents wandering all over town trying to make sense of their new "choices." Instead of genuine community input, which might threaten preconceived and ideologically driven decisions, parents have been treated to various empowerment charades, including one begun this spring by yet another privately financed institute aimed at correcting the terrible wobble of the market-driven education bandwagon.

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