School in the Big Easy
kids in New Orleans are turned away from filled schools,
city gambles its future on charter schools
February 13, 2006
Asta Levene, an artist and interior decorator
from New Orleans' French Quarter, has high cheekbones, black
hair with funky blond streaks and a Lithuanian accent. She also
has a 10-year-old son who hasn't been in school for months.
"Every day he's saying, 'I want my life back, I want my
school back,'" she says.
But his school, like many in this tattered
city, remains closed, and every other school she's tried to
enroll him in says there's no room. When she calls city
government officials, they give her a list of schools to try.
"Then you go there and you hear the same answer," she
says. She has a former science teacher come over several times a
week to tutor her son, and she's trying to teach him herself,
but she worries he's falling behind. "He's in fourth grade
and he's going to have to be tested," Levene says.
There are other children in similar
situations in New Orleans, though how many is unclear. Members
of the local teachers union, civil rights lawyers, and
neighborhood activists speak of neighborhoods overrun with
involuntarily truant students. "At the very least, 200 to
250 parents of school-age kids have been denied access to
schools here in New Orleans for no other reason than that the
schools are saying there's no room," says Tracie
Washington, one of New Orleans' leading civil rights lawyers. As
reports of children being turned away from schools pile up,
anger is building in the community. Two lawsuits have been filed
to force New Orleans to reopen its public schools.
Before the storm, New Orleans operated 117
public schools for 65,000 kids -- over 90 percent of them
Today, only 20 schools are open. School
officials say that by August, as families, now scattered across
the country, begin to return to New Orleans, the district will
open more schools and be able to handle a total of 25,000 kids.
But the current lack of available schools is about more than the
physical destruction wrought by Katrina. To many activists, it
points to serious inequities in the massive transformation of
the New Orleans public school system.
Long one of the nation's worst, the school
system is being re-created as a laboratory for charter schools,
a type of reform often favored by conservatives and opposed by
teachers unions and others who see it as a gateway to
privatization. Nearly 90 percent, or 102 schools, could
ultimately be run as charters. Nothing on this scale has ever
been tried before.
Brenda Mitchell, president of United Teachers
of New Orleans, says she is not a conspiracy theorist, but when
she considers the new charter system, she is not sure how else
to think. "It's all part of the privatization and social
engineering of the city, limiting the return of poor people and
African-Americans," she says. "If you're not providing
housing for them, if you don't want to provide schools to
educate them, how are they going to come back to rebuild the
Yet this isn't simply a battle between
callous privatizers and righteous locals. Plenty of residents
are desperate for a school system that works, and they're eager
for a restructuring. New Orleans public schools were a disaster
well before Katrina hit, and some of the city's education
experts see a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rebuild them free of
the stifling, often corrupt bureaucracy that's impeded progress
in the past.
"For a long time before the storm, the
Louisiana public schools have been in the bottom 10 percent of
national performance scores, and New Orleans has been at the
bottom of that," says Michael Cowan, executive director of
the Lindy Boggs Literacy Center at Loyola University, and an
advisor to the education committee of Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring
New Orleans Back Commission.
"Public education in New Orleans for a
long time has been about everything but the well-being of
children," he says. "It's about who controls
contracts. It's about the union agreement. It's been
tremendously racially polarized. By and large, our public school
system has been one of the big limitations on quality of life in
the city for a long time."
Cowan describes himself as a political
liberal, but he's behind the city's current school reforms.
"Forty percent of adults in the city of
New Orleans read below the sixth-grade level," he says.
"Another 30 percent read below the
eighth-grade level. The public schools have been a gross failure
for a long time. There has been a strong movement to try and do
something about that for quite a while, and when the storm hit,
it did present the city with an extraordinary opportunity to do
something about our schools within a period of time that would
have been utterly impossible if we had continued to try and chip
away at it."
By decimating the school system and
scattering the student body, Katrina gave New Orleans an
educational clean slate. With Louisiana strapped for funds, and
congressional Republicans looking to hand out money for
privatized schools, Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the Legislature
hatched the new charter plan. The legislation gives the state
jurisdiction over school districts with poor performance
records. (The state took over 102 of New Orleans' 117 public
In turn, the state can farm them out to
charters operated by nonprofit groups, foundations, or
universities. Indeed, the feds have come through in the wake of
Katrina, awarding $21 million to Louisiana for charter schools.
Today, all but three of the 20 open schools in New Orleans are
In general, charter schools are
semiautonomous public schools run by private groups that
contract with the city. They have the authority to hire and fire
their own faculty -- who needn't meet state certification
standards -- and design their own rules and curriculum, reducing
the power of teachers unions and school boards.
Charter schools have been around in many
cities since the early 1990s, but they've never dominated an
entire public school system. Before Katrina, Washington, D.C.,
led the nation in charter schools, with about a quarter of its
public schools run as charters.
All things being equal, there is no evidence
that charter schools work better than traditional public
education. Just last month, the National Center for the Study of
Privatization in Education at Columbia University's Teachers
College, released a study showing that, when adjusted to take
account of the differences in income and geography among various
groups of students, kids in charter schools perform worse
than those in public schools. Yet advocates still champion
them as a way to slice through the educational bureaucracy.
Even Cowan -- who didn't know about the kids
who can't get into school -- is worried about the massive
transformation in New Orleans. "There has never been an
experiment on this scale with charter schools in an urban school
district," he says. "We have to do everything we can
to support and resource these schools and get this right. It's a
Under the new regime, all of the city's
public school teachers -- more than 5,000 -- have been let go,
and those who want to continue teaching in the city have to
reapply for their jobs, often for less money. Rather than be
assigned a neighborhood school, the charter system gives parents
the power to choose where their children will be educated. The
problem is that, without a guaranteed neighborhood school, some
parents can't find any schools at all. Compounding the
difficulty, New Orleans isn't yet offering school bus service,
so parents without cars have a hard time if they can't get their
kids into classrooms nearby.
"This just shouldn't be," says
Washington, the civil rights lawyer. "If you ask people to
return, there need to be schools."
In late January, Washington filed a class
action suit against the Orleans Parish School Board, the state
of Louisiana and all of New Orleans' charter schools. "Even
more frightening," she says, than the 200 parents who
have been denied access to New Orleans schools, "is
that kids with special needs are being told that there is
absolutely no space for them. They're being wait-listed and told
they may not get into school until next year.
Washington is a pretty, broad-shouldered
black woman who wears a tangle of pearls around her neck and has
the "Sex and the City" theme song as her cellphone
ring tone. Since Katrina, she's worked almost entirely pro bono,
representing evacuees facing eviction from their hotel rooms and
advising migrant workers being housed in filthy conditions by
contractors. Her father is living in her office for the moment,
so she works out of donated space at Hope House, the ramshackle
headquarters for several progressive organizations, located on a
rundown block of St. Andrews Street.
To Washington, the current problems in school
enrollment are inherent to charters, which foster competition
for places in preferred schools. She also fears the remaining
public schools in the Orleans Parish School System will fall
into further neglect in the new hierarchy of charter schools.
"You cannot have a city where you decide you're going to
have a caste system and allow the schools run by the Orleans
Parish School System to be the dumping grounds for students that
nobody else will take," she says.
The week before she filed her lawsuit, she
says, she was standing across the street from Hope House, being
interviewed by an out-of-town reporter, when four kids rode by
on their bicycles. It was 1:30 in the afternoon. She says she
stopped the interview to grab one of the kids, a little boy, and
ask him why he wasn't in school.
"I don't go to school," he told
"What do you mean, you don't go to
"I don't go to school," he
repeated. "My mama tried to put us in school and nobody
would take us, so we don't go to school. We might go back to
Dallas. They like us in Dallas."
After that, Washington started asking around
to find out whether local activists knew kids were being turned
away from schools. She called New Orleans school superintendent
Ora Watson and learned that there was a waiting list of people
who'd called the Orleans Parish School Board office looking for
a place for their kids.
Washington got a copy of the list, which was
over 200 names long, and started calling the people on it. One
family had eight kids, only one of whom was in school. Another,
Nicole Manning, was supposed to restart her old job as a cashier
at Harrah's casino, but she was worried that she wouldn't be
able to because no schools would take her learning-disabled
9-year-old son, Nicholas.
Washington sued on behalf of the parents.
Meg Casper, director of communications for
the Louisiana Department of Education, refuses to discuss the
lawsuit directly. However, she insists that her office spent the
weekend calling the names on the waiting list and that only 14
of them had been unable to find school placement. Since then,
she said, "We've placed those 14 students."
Yet at the time Casper spoke, Manning, who
was on the list, still hadn't found a school for her son.
Someone from the Department of Education had called her, but
only to say that they were working on her case. "I'm
supposed to be getting a call again, so it's just a waiting
process," she said. This week she finally heard back from
officials. They'd found a place for her son to start school on
Meanwhile, other parents are still waiting. A
week after Washington filed her suit, United Teachers of New
Orleans, the city's teachers union, filed a similar one, asking
for a court order to reopen schools and provide free
transportation for students. At a press conference in front of
Joseph Craig Elementary, a shuttered school in the city's Treme
neighborhood, Levene joined union officials and unemployed
teachers. As they spoke, a woman driving a red truck noticed the
TV cameras and pulled up.
"Please open some more Orleans Parish
schools!" she shouted. Her name was Angela Ratliff, and
when she pulled over, she explained that her two daughters,
Raven and Letika -- both in the truck -- had been in middle
school at the well-regarded Capdau, which was a charter school
even before Katrina. She returned to New Orleans on Dec. 29, but
when she tried to re-enroll her daughters, the school was full
and they were turned away.
Ratliff said she was on her way to put her
daughters on a waiting list for two public schools that were
supposed to be opening later in the month. Until she enrolls
them, she said, "I can't work. It's not like my family's
here to help me baby-sit. Now I'm riding around with two girls
because they have nowhere to go to school."
Copyright ©2006 Salon Media Group, Inc
posted 20 February 2006
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