Hostile Takeover: Can New Orleans’ Public Schools Recover from the Recovery?

Since Hurricane Katrina, there has been an abundance of school reform in New Orleans; however, many see it as fake reform or “deform.” At the end of the 2011–2012 school year, 79% of the schools in the charter-based Recovery School District (RSD) were assigned a letter grade of either a “D” or “F.” After six full school years under the state-run RSD, their district is still failing the children of New Orleans. So how exactly did the majority of the schools in New Orleans become privatized?

New Orleans Charter Schools

Act 35

After Hurricane Katrina, the State Superintendent announced that no public schools would be re-opened in Orleans Parish during the 2005-2006 school year, despite parts of the West Bank, Uptown, French Quarter and Bywater remaining unflooded. In the meantime, politicians (state and federal) began making legal maneuvers to clear the way for the privatization of schools in Orleans Parish. Just three months after the hurricane, in a special session, the Louisiana legislature passed “Act 35,” which enabled the state to take over 102 of the 128 Orleans Parish schools (formerly under the Orleans Parish School Board, or OPSB) and place them in the RSD. The RSD automatically assumed all “rights, responsibility of ownership regarding land, buildings, facilities, and other property” of the schools that it took over (La. Act No. 35, 2005). The RSD had the right to charter out schools to both nonprofit and forprofit providers. It was to operate these schools for a minimum of five years. Supposedly, Act 35 was not written just for New Orleans—because under the Equal Protection clause of the US Constitution, a law like that would be discriminatory. Prior to the passage of Act 35, “Academically Unacceptable” referred to a school that had a School Performance Score below 60. A school taken over by the RSD either had to be “Academically Unacceptable” for four straight years or they had to fail to implement an approved reconstitution plan.

But Act 35 enabled the RSD to take over all schools that were “below the state average.” This meant that the RSD would take over schools in Orleans Parish with a score below 87.5, but this did not apply to all parishes. It was only for a district where 50% of a district’s student population attended a school deemed “Academically Unacceptable” or if 30 schools were designated “Academically Unacceptable,” but only in a parish where the population exceeded 400,000. At the time, Orleans Parish had a population of around 452,000, more than any other parish. For the other districts, the threshold of 60 remained. In other words, it was a law so convoluted and complicated it could only target a single Parish.

Who and What was Behind it All?

In September of 2005, the U.S. Department of Education gave $20.9 million to Louisiana for post-Katrina charter schools but did not designate the same amount for traditional public schools. Charter schools received $2,000 per student from a grant from the federal government, under George W. Bush. Right after this special money was designated for charter schools, then-Governor Kathleen Blanco signed an Emergency Act and Executive Order waiving the requirements that faculty and staff of a school—along with parents and guardians of the students—had to approve the conversion of a public school to a charter school. Thus, it became easy to transform a public school into a charter school. Eight years later, Blanco’s Emergency Act is still in effect.

At the same time, former Mayor Ray Nagin created the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOBC), which consisted of an Education Committee whose purpose was to create a blueprint for the future of public education in New Orleans. They met for the first time in October of 2005, before most residents had returned from evacuation. The committee members were predominantly white and had affiliations with organizations that were proponents of privatization, like the Archdiocese of New Orleans and Teach For America. The committee also consulted with the Gates Foundation, Broad Foundation and the Annenberg Institute. There were no parents, students or teachers on this committee and only two African- American educators from New Orleans. But the committee claimed to have sought the opinions of about 1,500 students, teachers and community members, which were compiled into data by the Boston Consulting Group.

Government funding was at stake in the rebuilding of New Orleans public schools. In June of 2006, the federal government announced another $24 million dollars in federal aid to Louisiana for the development of charter schools, but not for traditional public schools. The conservative Heritage Foundation began issuing reports encouraging entrepreneurs to seize the opportunity and create new public policies enhancing choice in public education. Adhering to these guidelines, as articulated by the Heritage Foundation, would bring funds to rebuild schools. But the funds had stipulations. For example, the Gates and the Broad Foundation donated money but required that it be used for charter schools only.

New Orleans Charter SchoolsWho Did this Affect?

The RSD gave charter schools autonomy and discriminatory policies took hold. Charter schools were allowed to place caps on their enrollment. Throughout the duration of the 2005-2006 and the 2006- 2007 school years, many children were on waiting lists to enter public schools. Charter schools were not required to provide public transportation, which clearly violated federal laws requiring equal access to public education. After a lawsuit was filed for children who could not gain entrance into charter schools, the RSD was forced to open an elementary school and a high school in April of 2006. The transportation issue was finally addressed when a parent brought it to court.

When the RSD eventually opened the majority of its direct-run schools, they were in no way an improvement from pre-Katrina OPSB schools. Many resembled prisons or warehouses, with more security guards than teachers and practices such as aggressively frisking students and searching their belongings (even though they had already passed through metal detectors) and suspending or arresting students for walking in the hallways during class time (many were special needs students who had been placed in regular classes with no help). Moreover, schools lacked basic resources including textbooks, a sufficient number of certified teachers, services for special education students, insurance for afterschool activities and counseling services to help children cope with the trauma that they had experienced during the largest disaster in US history.

As a classroom teacher at the time, I saw students’ lunch sandwiches decorated with pieces of ice, bathrooms stalls with no doors and children drinking from water bottles because of broken water fountains. My classes had more than 50 children in a classroom, when 33 was the state maximum. After the insurance claims, after the FEMA funds, after millions of federal dollars had been provided to the state for the repair of these schools, why did the RSD open their schools under warlike conditions?

A lawsuit for federal violations against children with special needs was filed in 2010. Still today, many “open admissions” charter schools deny entrance to special needs students, or they counsel them to leave the school. Why? Many believe it is because their test scores might drive down the schools’ average. Moreover, just last month, the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans (VAYLA) filed a federal discrimination complaint against the RSD and the OPSB. VAYLA said that several charter schools in the New Orleans East area are violating federal law by not providing equal access to Latino and Vietnamese families who speak English as a second language.

How were teachers affected and how did this change the demographics of New Orleans? Before the storm, about 75% of the teaching force was African-American, one of the largest percentages in the nation. Over 7,000 OPSB employees, including 4,500 teachers, were placed on “disaster leave without pay” in September of 2005. Educators were eventually forced to retire, or they were illegally terminated (The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that this was wrongful termination under Louisiana law). Personally, I remember picking up my last paycheck (with no check stub) via Western Union in September of 2005 and first reading of our termination on This mass purging occurred even though the State Superintendent had requested $2.4 billion dollars from the Department of Education in 2005, asking specifically for emergency federal funds to continue paying the employees from the districts that were impacted by the storm (as cited in the lawsuit Oliver, et al. v. OPSB, et al., 2012). As a result of the illegal teacher terminations, right now there is a much less experienced (and much whiter) teaching force.

Despite all of this damage, local and federal politicians have been promoting school reform in New Orleans as the national model. US Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan even announced on television: “The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.” But many parents, students, teachers, researchers and even some of the ex-Teach For America teachers do not seem to agree with Duncan, as they have been resisting and organizing against this hostile takeover.

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