New Orleans schools have not become a 'model for the nation.' Instead, New Orleans stands as an example of brutal corporate attacks on public education and the deep racist roots of corporate 'school reform' since the days when Paul Vallas was overseer of the New Orleans plantation

Between the Illinois race for governor and some national reporting on the opening of school, the brutal destruction of the public schools of New Orleans following the August 2005 assault on the city by Hurricane Katrina is back in the news. Paul Vallas, one of the architects of the racist replacement of democratic public schools in New Orleans, is now a candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Illinois. And National Public Radio is trying to spin the New Orleans story, nine years after Katrina, into another propaganda piece for charter schools. It was more than coincidental that Substance reporter Jean Schwab was in New Orleans the first week of school 2014 - 2015 and updated all of the exposes on the destruction of the New Orleans public schools in our recent article in Substance.

Much of the research since the 2006 publication of the AFT-UTNO report has proved that the racist destruction of democracy and public schools in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina (August 2005) has elaborated on what the AFT found two years after Katrina. One facet of the history is that CORE studied the racism of Arne Duncan and others as part of its early organizing. Studying Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine" gave Chicago's most militant teachers insights into the machinations of corporate school reform during the years when Paul Vallas was overseer of the New Orleans privatization plantation. But 2014 is far from 2005. Now that one of the many apologists for charter schools and the union busting privatization of public schools has tried to attack our reporting, Substance has the opportunity to return to the roots of our reporting on the New Orleans situation. In November 2006, two years after Katrina and Corporate Reform hit the people of New Orleans with a one-two punch, the American Federation of Teachers issued a 35 page report -- ‘National Model’ Or Flawed Approach? The Post-Katrina New Orleans Public Schools -- demonstrating how the corporate "reforms" being foisted on New Orleans were wrong, a union busting and racist attack on democracy.

Since the publication of "National Model or Flawed Approach" dozens of major studies and news reports have exposed the vicious attacks on democracy that took place during the post-Katrina years in New Orleans. The main features of these attacks include the attempted destruction of the United Teachers of New Orleans, one of the most powerful (and Black-led) unions in the Deep South and the replacement of democratic control of local public schools with a corporate dictatorship. These facts are important generally, but especially so for those in Illinois who are being asked to welcome one of the architects of corporate "school reform" home. Paul Vallas since 1995 has been an enemy of public schools, unions, and democracy, and the scandalous way in which he was forced to leave Connecticut (he was ruled unqualified to head the Bridgeport public school system) is surpassed by the even greater scandal in Illinois. At the time when Vallas's lengthy record of fraud and corporate adventurism were being examined and the prospect existed that Vallas was finally out of business, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn literally saved Vallas's career by naming Vallas as Quinn's running mate in the upcoming, November 2014, Illinois general election. The reason for Quinn's decision has never been explained except with double talk and evasions, but since the New Orleans chapter of the Vallas story is back in the news, that part can be examined again.

We will only share the Executive Summary of that AFT report (which was published jointly with the United Teachers of New Orleans) here:

Executive Summary

Building a high-quality school system in New Orleans will take commitment, courage and open and honest dialogue.

• As the people of New Orleans struggle to rebuild their lives, they deserve a public school system that provides a high-quality education to all children. Initial evidence strongly suggests that the redesigned school system is unlikely to achieve this goal.

• The time for finger-pointing and political grandstanding is over. A thoughtful reassessment of the restructured school system is essential if state and local officials are to learn lessons, make necessary changes and create a high-quality public school system.

• Having the courage to ask tough questions is the only way to identify the issues that remain unaddressed, expose the gaps between policies and promises, and initiate an open and honest discussion that can generate reforms which truly serve children.

Legislators and stakeholders must closely review the post-

Katrina reforms, the impact of these changes and the context in which they were made.

• Before Katrina, New Orleans’ public schools faced serious challenges that were magnified by unstable leadership and financial malfeasance. Critics paint a one-dimensional picture of the school district that overlooks the significant achievement gap that existed between the city’s highest- and lowest-performing schools.

• Two months after Katrina, the Louisiana Legislature passed Act 35, which significantly expanded the state’s authority to take over public schools and redefined “failing” in ways that appeared to be tailored specifically to New Orleans.

• Act 35 placed the vast majority of the city’s public schools in the state-run Recovery School District (RSD), which operates side by side with the handful of schools that are still overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB).

• Financial realities—not genuine, systemic “reform”—prompted the OPSB to convert roughly a dozen of its schools to charter schools after Katrina. Yet financial realities cannot excuse the failure of local school board members and BESE to reopen more schools, push for broader federal aid to schools, and put the interests of New Orleans children above their petty pursuits.

• The OPSB public schools have a higher percentage of their students in charter schools than the state-run Recovery School District. The state’s low chartering rate may reflect RSD’s need for a large number of “schools of last resort”—these are schools that

do not have selective admissions, can expand capacity by

using mobile classrooms or raising class sizes, or can enroll other students who do not find spaces in charter schools.

The new two-district school system has confused and frustrated parents, students and other stakeholders.

• Contrary to state officials’ promises, the restructuring of the New Orleans school system has produced disarray and confusion, deeply frustrating many parents and students.

• Parents and the public have encountered a system in which schools’ registration procedures, starting dates, transportation options and other key details varied widely. The state did not provide a central location where parents and other stakeholders could obtain such information for each school.

School accessibility and teacher shortages have been significant problems.

• State and local officials have been slow to reopen additional schools. As far back as January, at least 170 students were turned away from New Orleans public schools. During his visit to New Orleans this summer, President Bush said it best: “families can’t move back unless there [are] schools for the kids.”

• Across the country, millions of parents take for granted that their local public school systems will provide free transportation to and from their neighborhoods. Yet a number of New Orleans’ newly opened public schools have not offered any transportation for students.

• The RSD public schools have struggled to hire teachers, and state officials lowered qualifications in a last-ditch effort to find an adequate number of teachers. This teacher shortage underscores why the decision to fire nearly all of New Orleans’ 7,500 school employees was shortsighted.

Teachers and their unions are eager to work cooperatively to improve the schools.

• The United Teachers of New Orleans and its partners—the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers—are eager to work cooperatively with local, state and national officials to assess the needs of the city’s newly restructured school system and to make necessary improvements.

• This report offers recommendations for moving forward, and we hope these recommendations contribute to a constructive, inclusive and forward-looking dialogue that recognizes the stake every citizen has in building a high-quality school system.


September 10, 2014 at 1:58 PM

By: Bob Busch

Katrina kids were in Chicago classrooms, too

Ill call her Norma,which is not her real name. She came to my school in '06, or '07. A real live victim of Hurricane Katrina.

She was a super kid, full of life, quick witted, and a real athlete. She was almost the poster child for kids CPS ignores.

She was also jumpy, had a swivel head, and never sat down. And she was very smart.

After awhile I asked her about Katrina. She almost went catatonic. The eyes narrowed and it all came out. Her entire family had to chop a hole through the roof to escape the water. Then a Coast Guard helicopter saved their lives.

A lit of people talk about what came after that but a whole lot of kids really needed counseling that never happened.

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