New Orleans and the Future of American Education

Opinions here are my own and not necessarily those of the United Federation of Teachers, where I serve as President.

In the next week, we will mark the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The images of widespread destruction and needless suffering and death that flashed across our television screens two years ago remain fresh in our collective memory, if only because they were so stark and terrible. For a moment, the reality of the ‘other America,’ living in poverty and shut out of the American dream, became real for all Americans. We were shamed by the knowledge that thousands of people, many of them poor or of color, were left for days and days without essential food, water, shelter, medicine and health care as a result of the catastrophic failure of our government. In the wealthiest and most powerful nation of the world, such a failure was a monumental travesty.

In the two years since Katrina, those images have faded from our television screens. But the government’s abandonment of the poor and working people of New Orleans continues today. In June, I went to New Orleans, together with UFT leaders Michelle Bodden and Leo Casey, to further our partnership and assistance to our sister local, the United Teachers of New Orleans [UTNO]. I was stunned by what I heard and what I saw: it is hard to find the words that fully convey the enormity of the wrong that is being done today in New Orleans.

At one point in our trip, I stood with AFT Secretary-Treasurer Nat LaCour and UTNO President Brenda Mitchell, both natives of New Orleans, near the restored levees in the Lower Ninth Ward. This was once a large and thriving, albeit working class and poor, African-American neighborhood of New Orleans. Yet in every direction I looked, for as far as my eye could see, there was not a single building standing. One would not know that there had once been a community on that very spot, but for the flattened remains of the foundations of homes, the broken streets, and the fire hydrants. The only signs of life in the entire landscape were weeds of the sort one finds in an abandoned lot.

What is shocking is that this state of affairs, two years after Katrina, seems to be the product of a deliberate plan. The restoration of public services and utilities throughout the Lower Ninth Ward—water, electricity, gas, sewers, public transportation and public education—was delayed for months and months. The very first public school to be opened in the Lower Ninth Ward, the Martin Luther King Charter School, is just returning this fall, and it is surrounded by blocks and blocks where no other building stands. The governmental and the corporate forces directing the recovery decided to make it impossible for the former residents of that community to return and rebuild their homes. Other flooded, once predominantly African-American communities of New Orleans face different, but just as real, challenges of governmental neglect that stand in the way of their reconstruction. Yet we saw major rebuilding efforts in wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods.

A major part of this reshaping of the city’s ethnic face and economic profile has been played out on the stage of the New Orleans public schools. The Bush administration and certain high level Louisiana government officials saw in the devastation of Katrina an opportunity to create a new national model of a ‘market based system of education’ that could replace the existing public school systems. To this end, state takeover legislation broke up the existing New Orleans Public Schools [NOPS], creating a balkanized patchwork of competing school systems, firing all of the teachers and staff in NOPS, and abrogating their collective bargaining agreement.

Eighteen of the best functioning New Orleans schools remained with a much smaller NOPS; two-thirds of these schools have been converted to charter status with NOPS as the authorizing agency. A recovery school district [RSD] run by the state Board of Education has responsibility for more than 20 schools, including the schools of last resort in this ‘market’ system, and is chartering more than 20 other schools. A number of charter school operators, including the Leona Group, KIPP, and several local universities, also run schools. Further, both NOPS and RSD have spun off a number of charter schools to an independent organization—the Algiers Charter School Association. The sheer number of competing entities creates much confusion among parents, students, decision-makers, community residents and the public in general. While these intermediary organizations multiply, New Orleans still has barely one-half of the public schools it possessed pre-Katrina.

Across America, we have heard the promises of a ‘new day’ for New Orleans public schools. After all, proponents of market-based education say, the existing system “was not working for children,” so why not level it and start from scratch. Yet the reality that I saw first hand in New Orleans, two years into its ‘brave, new world’ of unfettered competition, was a city radically polarized between ‘have’ and ‘have not’ schools, and a market system that is failing all too many of the students who most need a quality public education.

The NOPS schools and charter schools which had been functioning well pre-Katrina are still doing reasonably well today. Many of these schools have selective admissions requirements that students must meet, so it is not surprising that their students, disproportionately drawn from professional families, perform well. There are also additional federal government and foundation funds flowing into charter schools, so they have more resources than their non-charter counterparts.

A much larger group of schools, including most of the RSD, is struggling mightily. The State Board of Education and the RSD has failed to provide them with the most elementary tools of education. New Orleans teachers told me stories of their RSD schools that, two years after Katrina, had neither textbooks for their students nor teaching materials for their teachers. Many RSD schools were beset with serious environmental problems such as mold, mildew and rodent infestation. Other schools were still unable to deliver a proper lunch to their students. Having dismantled the pre-Katrina teaching force, forcing large numbers of them into retirement and into other Louisiana parishes for work, this experiment in market education has created a major teaching shortage in New Orleans, heavily concentrated in the RSD schools. During our June visit, many RSD schools still lacked a full complement of teachers. A recent UTNO-AFT report, No Experience Necessary, describes in detail the difficulties New Orleans public schools are now facing in attracting and retaining qualified, experienced teachers. Throughout the 2006-2007 school year, students were actually turned away from the RSD schools and denied their right to a public education because there are no seats for them in those schools and insufficient school teachers to teach them.

My colleagues visiting RSD middle and high schools saw large numbers of security guards, one posted virtually every 100 yards in its halls, but there is a grave shortage of counseling and mental health professionals in these same schools, as well as throughout New Orleans. [The ratio of students to security guards has gone from a pre-Katrina 333-to-one to a post-Katrina 37-to-one.] Knowing how important mental health services were for New York City public school students following 9-11, I was shocked that New Orleans students who were Katrina survivors were not receiving even minimal assistance. Our AFT colleagues in the New York State Psychological Association were part of our June visit to New Orleans, and are working with UTNO on this important front.

One target of the takeover legislation was United Teachers of New Orleans, a great union with a proud legacy as one of the first integrated teacher unions in the South and the very first teacher union in the South to win collective bargaining rights. UTNO had built itself into a powerful educational and political force in New Orleans, and union-busters in Washington, D.C. and Baton Rouge saw in the post-Katrina reorganization of schools what they thought was an opportunity to destroy it. They eliminated by fiat its collective bargaining agreement. But UTNO is now in the midst of an extraordinary organizing drive, signing up the majority of teachers in every school, one by one, that will leave it stronger than it was before Katrina. This summer the UFT sent scores of our own members to New Orleans to assist UTNO in its organizing efforts, to help rebuild schools and playgrounds, and to tutor New Orleans children in summer programs set by the Children’s Defense Fund. We will continue this support until the struggle is won.

Our UTNO brothers and sisters would be the first to tell you that their struggle is not just about their right to have a union and a collective bargaining agreement, as important as that is. At stake in New Orleans is the future of American public education. Will we provide quality schooling for all, regardless of economic standing and race? Or will we become a nation of two sets of public schools, one for the ‘haves’ and one for the ‘have nots?’

UTNO, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the AFT have done a comprehensive report on the state of New Orleans public schools which details these and other problems, ‘National Model’ or Flawed Approach?: the Post-Katrina New Orleans Public Schools. A very powerful collection of writings by New Orleans students and teachers, Dismantling A Community, provides a remarkable window into their experience. I had the opportunity to meet some of the teachers and students whose work was published in Dismantling A Community, and it was an awesome experience. What is remarkable about New Orleans teachers and students is that for all that has been visited upon them in the wake of Katrina, they remain resilient and determined to regain control of their educational destiny. They are our inspiration.

–Guestblogger Randi Weingarten

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