One of the least remarked-upon aspects of the Katrina catastrophe has been its impact on the education of children in the Gulf Coast. As researchers who study urban education, we see both opportunities in New Orleans and the potential for a long-running disaster.
Before Katrina the New Orleans system was widely considered one of the nation’s most dysfunctional, although it had begun to make progress in the year before the storm, judging by scores on state accountability assessments. It was always a system that worked for some children. As we heard a community activist point out, it worked for those few white students who stayed in it. Indeed, while black students in New Orleans ranked at the very bottom in state scores, white students’ scores were the highest in Louisiana.
In the aftermath of the storm, the state assumed authority over 107 of the 128 public schools in the system, forming them into the Recovery School District (RSD). But it was only after the United Teachers of New Orleans filed suit–while pressure escalated from the affected communities amid growing evidence that a large number of children could not get in to any school–that three schools were opened through the RSD at the beginning of 2006. Meanwhile, the state has been evaluating proposals for charter schools, many from entities outside the state. (Charters are public schools not under the authority of the local Board of Education and thus, the hope is, free of stultifying bureaucratic strictures.) The plan is essentially to re-create the system as a virtually all-charter school district.
Charter schools remain controversial. The weight of the research suggests that students in charters typically do no better than students in regular public schools, and frequently do worse. (One part of the problem is that charter operators typically vastly underestimate what it takes to get a school up and running.) Still, we know of some excellent charters around the country and think they can be made to work in New Orleans. Our concerns have to do with the entire school district having few or no viable structures in place to monitor issues of equity for students or the quality of the teaching force, and with a pattern of decision-making that consistently excludes the communities most affected. Charters are just a way to structure school governance. Unless we change the traditional pattern by which the flow of resources has been shaped by race and class politics, we haven’t changed anything fundamental.
In a decentralized system, who is responsible for the neediest students? The answer is likely to be no one. It is an invitation to re-create a system deeply segregated by race and class. We have already seen cases of special-needs children being refused admission to schools. According to Lance Hill of the Southern Institute for Education and Research, last year 2,000 special-needs students were completely locked out of the RSD and charter schools. At the beginning of this school year, there was only one person on the RSD staff to supervise the placement of 4,000-6,000 special-needs students. One high school, which previously served low-income African-American students and was mostly undamaged by Katrina, has essentially been handed over to Tulane University as a “selective admissions charter,” which, since Tulane poured more than $1 million into building improvements, will serve largely the children of university employees. (And guess what? The school was already filled by late August!) At the extremes, a situation in which no one has to accept responsibility for the neediest children is likely to generate a set of publicly supported neo-segregationist academies, where enforced segregation according to class, special needs and test scores is as likely as segregation by race.