New Orleans Education is Inefficient Expensive and Sad

2 Oct

By Thomas Ultican 10/2/2019

New Orleans’s public schools were targeted by the destroy-public-education (DPE) movement even before hurricane Katrina struck. Today, they are the national example of a privatized school system. DPE operatives like Neerav Kingsland, the former chief executive of New Schools for New Orleans and Managing Director of the secretive City Fund, use New Orleans to promote the portfolio management theory of school governance and to attract philanthropic dollars to their cause. However, the reality is that New Orleans’ schools are inefficient, undermine communities, have extremely high management and transportation costs, and still struggle academically. They are a sad but typical example of market-based education reform.

In 2002, George Bush signed into law the update of the Elementary and Secondary Education act known as “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB). Alfie Kohn published a 2004 article, “Test Today, Privatize Tomorrow; Using Accountability to ‘Reform’ Public Schools to Death.” In it, he discussed the idea that the NCLB accountability measures were purposely designed to open a path for privatizing schools. He wrote,

 “We now have corroboration that these fears were entirely justified. Susan Neuman, an assistant secretary of education during the roll-out of NCLB, admitted that others in Bush’s Department of Education ‘saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the choice agenda – a way to expose the failure of public education and blow it up a bit’’’ (Claudia Wallis, ‘No Child Left Behind: Doomed to Fail?’, Time, June 8, 2008).”

26-george-bush-signs-nclb-act-2002

George Bush Signs NCLB Law January 8, 2002 – Ron Edmonds/AP-File

In 2003, Louisiana state government passed a school take-over law aimed at the low scoring schools in New Orleans. The law created the Recovery School District (RSD) which would manage the schools the state took. School performance scores (SPS) were given to schools based on testing data, attendance, dropout rates and graduation rates. Receiving an SPS rating of academically unacceptable four years in a row made a school vulnerable to takeover.

By the end of the 2004-2005 school year, the state had taken over five New Orleans schools. RSD turned all five into charter schools operated by four groups: University of New Orleans; Middle School Advocates, Inc.; Knowledge Is Power Program; and Institute for Academic Excellence. All set to begin in the 2005-06 school year.

However, privatizing five schools did little to solve the corruption problem endemic in the Orleans Parrish School Board. There were six interim superintendents between 1998 and 2005. With a lack of stable central leadership, corruption, graft, and incompetence persisted. An FBI investigation led to 11 indictments in 2004 and by end of the school year in May 2005 the district was effectively bankrupt.

In July, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) contracted with Alvarez & Marsal, a financial turnaround firm from New York City with little experience in public schools. The first Alvarez & Marsal status report said,

“The conditions we have found are as bad as any we have ever encountered. The financial data that exists is (sic) unreliable, there has not been a clean audit since FY 2001-2002, there is no inventory of assets, the payroll system is in shambles, school buildings are in deplorable condition and, up to now, there has been little accountability.”

In late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck.

Aug 30 2015 Photo by David J. Phillip - AP

August 30, 2005 Photo by David J. Phillip/AP

Before Katrina, OPSB, which ran the public schools in New Orleans, operated 123 schools; in the spring following the storm, it was running just four.

With OPSB out of the road and RSD in charge, philanthropies like the Gates and Broad foundations were ready to help. According to Mayor Ray Nagin who is in prison,

“They said, ‘Look, you set up the right environment, we will fund, totally fund, brand-new schools for the city of New Orleans. But we don’t want to go through what you’ve been through. All that struggle you’ve been having with that school board. We don’t want to do that. We want to come in clean.’”

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klien labeled the action of these school reform philanthropists a prime example of “disaster capitalism” which she described as “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.” She also observed, “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid brought back online, the auctioning-off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.”

In 2010, Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan infamously said, “I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.”

In 2009, Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) made it more difficult for schools to remain academically acceptable, effectively ending most of the remaining public schools in New Orleans. BESE raised the minimum SPS score for Academically Unacceptable status to 65 for the 2010-11 school year and 75 for the 2011-12 school year. In the coming school year 2019-2020, there will be no public schools in New Orleans. RSD has transferred management of charter schools to the Orleans Parish School Board which has renamed itself NOLA Public Schools.

NOLA Public Schools is Inefficient and Ineffective

At the 2016 Network for Public Education conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of CUNY, Andrea Gabor, presented at a breakout session. She was working on a book subsequently published in 2018 with the title After the Education Wars. Andrea made it clear that she was not anti-charter school and in her book she presents the story of one particularly successful charter school, Morris Jeff, which exemplified the Deming approach to business management. She had just returned from New Orleans where she encountered many black families who were initially positive about the new charter schools after Katrina, but were now angry.

One New Orleans parent at the North Carolina session explained that during her eighth grade year she was in a class with 55-students. Their room was not air-conditioned and they were restricted to running the fan 10-minutes each hour to save on electrical costs. With the news of large scale spending on schools in black communities, residents did not care about the governance structure. It was the first significant spending on education in their neighborhoods in living memory.

OPSB was established in 1841 with a large assist from the champion of common schools, Horace Mann. However, Louisiana was a slave state and it was illegal to educate slaves. Gabor noted, “In 1867, Robert Mills Lusher, a new state superintendent of education and a ‘rabid Confederate and outspoken racist,’ argued that all-white schools should be ‘properly preserved as a bastion of white supremacy.”’ With the end of reconstruction in 1877, the schools in New Orleans were resegregated and remained that way until the 1960s.

Charter school advocates talk about the corruption and dysfunction in OPSB, however Gabor stated:

“But you don’t hear much talk these days about the legacy of white supremacy that disenfranchised the city’s majority-black residents and sought to keep them in ignorance. (As recently as the turn of the millennium, 50% of the city’s entire population was functionally illiterate.) Nor will you hear much about how the city’s white citizens fought hard against integration well into the 1960s and then, when the gig was up, fled the schools.” (Emphasis added)

Six percent of k-12 students in New Orleans are white, yet the academically top ranked and most sot after high schools are Lusher Charter School which is 53.2% white and Benjamin Franklin High School which is 40.2% white.

One more quotation from Andrea Gabor’s After the Education Wars:

“Since 2006, the average renewal rate of charter schools has been 64.8 percent. That means well over one-third of the charter schools launched since Hurricane Katrina have failed so badly that they have either been taken over or closed.”

Professor of Economics Doug Harris and his team at Tulane University are contracted to study school performance in New Orleans. It must be difficult to maintain neutrality when sharing office space on the seventh floor of 1555 Poydras Street with the pro-privatization group New Schools for New Orleans. Harris claims public schools improved considerably after Hurricane Katrina. In his new study, he attributes that success to performance-based closures and takeovers, as well as charter openings.

However, hurricane Katrina created major changes in New Orleans. The Enrollment was about 62,000 before the storm, and is 48,000 now. It is not only smaller, but less impoverished, with less concentrated poverty. Many of the poorest families left and never returned. Originally, per student spending was increased dramatically to get the schools back up and running. Now, the student spending is $1,400 per student more than before Katrina.

Professor Bruce Baker of Rutgers University reviewed Harris’s study and disagreed with his conclusion. He thinks the post Katrina changes were so ubiquitous that before and after comparison studies will never be dispositive. Baker says,

“I’m not convinced that the data available have sufficient additional precision to answer any more useful policy questions. Perhaps more importantly, the uniqueness of the policy context, conditions and changes induced by “the storm” will always severely limit any policy implications for other settings.”

Today in New Orleans, it is not uncommon for students living within view of a school, to get on a bus and travel five miles to their assigned schools. Writing in the Washington Post, Emma Brown explained, “Students were no longer assigned to schools via attendance boundaries; instead, they decided where they wanted to go and entered lotteries for a chance to enroll.” The concept of a community school that a student and all her neighborhood friends and family attended has been eliminated. Brown also shared:

“It was state officials, elected by the state’s white majority, who took over the schools from the local school board, elected by the city’s black majority. The teachers who were fired were mostly black; many of those teaching now are white, and they come from somewhere else.”

“Students traveled an average of 1.8 miles further to get to school in 2011-2012 than they did before Katrina, according to the Education Research Alliance of New Orleans.”

“One in four students attended a school more than five miles away from home.”

Transportation is not the only inefficiency in the privatized system. Since each of the charter school organizations are stand alone learning education agencies, they must have their own set of administrators. Administrative costs have dramatically risen for NOLA education. However, the cost for teachers has been reduced by replacing the formerly experienced black educators that constituted 73% of the teaching staff with mostly white Teach For America corps members who have no academic training or experience in teaching.

A huge problem with low attendance bedevils the privatized system and an extraordinary 30% of NOLA teachers resigned last year. The latest state test scores (LEAP) were released, and the scores in New Orleans stalled or dipped.

Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch sums up:

“So, here is the New Orleans model: Close almost all public schools. Replace them with private charters. Fire all the teachers. Replace most of the teachers with inexperienced, ill-trained TFA recruits. Close low-performing charters and replace them with other charters. Keep disrupting and churning. In the first two years, scores will go up, then stall. By year eight, “quality” will stagnate or decline. The schools will be highly stratified and racially segregated. The few high-performing schools will have selective admissions.”

5 Responses to “New Orleans Education is Inefficient Expensive and Sad”

  1. Melissa Coon October 5, 2019 at 4:38 am #

    What a sad & sordid story of the destroying of the educational system of New Orleans! Shame on those who are behind this!! They will reap what they have sown, and pay for their treachery on Judgement Day.

  2. grumpyoldteacher October 5, 2019 at 2:48 pm #

    This is the vision Jacksonville’s (FL) mayor, City Council president and others have for Duval County Public Schools.

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