Investigative reporter, Colleen Kimmett, discusses her three-month In These Times investigation that reveals cracks in the education reform narrative.

Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: During the recent commemorations of the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, President Obama praised the vast improvements in the New Orleans school system. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Before the storm New Orleans public schools were largely broken, leaving generations of low-income kids without a decent education. Today thanks to parents and educators, school leaders, nonprofits, we’re seeing real gains in achievement with new schools, more resources to retain and develop and support great teachers and principals. We have data that shows before the storm the high school graduation rate was 54 percent. Today it’s up to 73 percent. Before the storm, college enrollment was 37 percent. Today it’s almost 60 percent. We still have a long way to go, but that is real progress. New Orleans is coming back better and stronger. NOOR: After the storm, every New Orleans public school teacher was fired. The school system was overhauled and largely privatized. Today 90 percent of students attend publicly funded but often privately managed charter schools, the highest such percentage in the country. The mainstream media has echoed this narrative, calling it the New Orleans miracle, highlighting increasing test scores and graduation rates, the two main indicators of educational outcomes. But not everyone agrees with this account. According to a report by In These Times, ten years after Katrina, New Orleans’ all-charter school system has proven a failure. Test scores tell one story, and residents tell another. Now we’re joined by the report’s author, Colleen Kimmett. Thanks so much for joining us, Colleen. COLLEEN KIMMETT: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me. NOOR: Republicans like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and Democrats like President Obama alike say privatizing the New Orleans school system saved and really helped what everyone agrees was a struggling school system. What’s your response? KIMMETT: Well, my response is that while we have seen improvements in academic achievement, many members of the community in New Orleans feel like they’ve been left out, and this market-based system has resulted in a host of other problems for New Orleans students and parents. NOOR: And so talk about what you mean and what you found in your investigation. Because when you talk about education and education reform the way it’s measured nationally, and especially how it’s been since No Child Left Behind, and now with President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, you’re talking about numbers. You’re not talking about the human story. KIMMETT: Yeah. And one of the problems with this market-based system is that it’s really high-stakes. So schools that don’t perform, charter schools that don’t perform, that don’t meet those minimum academic achievement standards, they get closed down. And I talked to parents and students who were really upset, because they had to essentially find new schools for their kids. Teachers have to find new jobs, and administrators have to find new jobs. One administrator told me, it’s essentially like you build something up and then you’re dispersed to become cogs in the system. So that was one problem. Another problem was a sense that–there was a real sense of the loss of neighborhood schools. So choice in this system is really touted as one of the advantages, because you don’t have to go to a school in your neighborhood. You can apply to go anywhere in the city. But at the same time this has meant a loss of a physical community asset for many people, so the place where they would go, use the auditorium, a gathering place for the community. NOOR: And so talk more about this idea of neighborhood and community, because again, that’s not something you can measure in a test score, but when you see school closures in New Orleans or in New York or in Baltimore, they’re happening around the country, that’s one of the main things that students and parents and residents say is lost. KIMMETT: Yeah, certainly. And I think there’s a sense that this just happened to New Orleans. But in some cases community groups had formed their own associations to charter schools and lost out to charter organizations that had more financial backing, more connections, more contacts. The people I talked to weren’t necessarily–many of them weren’t necessarily opposed to the chartering of schools or charter schools as a concept, but they felt like it wasn’t a level playing field in terms of who gets to run those charters, who gets to control those charters. So it wasn’t just a matter of charters happening to people. There was in many cases specific opposition to the entities that eventually took control of charter schools. There was a fight for some schools, between community groups and between charter organizations. NOOR: And that is significant, because charter schools are not part of the overall school district and aren’t, they don’t play by the same rules. So with teacher discipline, teacher hiring and firing, they have their own set of rules they play by. And before in a neighborhood school or community school, those are decisions that the community would have greater input in. KIMMETT: Yeah. And certainly the recovery school district did implement a standardized, a uniform policy for discipline, because I think around 2012, 2013 there was a real spike in the number of suspensions and detentions. So the state did realize there was a lack of accountability there, a lack of standardized policy in terms of discipline. So that’s something that has changed. I think people were happy to see that change. In terms of hiring and firing, that is up to individual charter organizations. And we’ve seen a pretty big difference in terms of what teachers are getting paid from school to school. We’ve also seen a drop in the number of African-American teachers, and that was something that came up quite often when I talked to parents. Parents were upset because, as one mother told me, they weren’t seeing enough black faces in the classroom. And that came along with a sense of feeling like the culture wasn’t being respected. They don’t understand us. We need more black role models. Those were some of the things I heard from parents. NOOR: And of course these same reforms would never be instituted in the schools that President Obama sends his children to. These only happen in low-income areas around the country. KIMMETT: It seems, yeah. It seems that is a trend. So we’re seeing it in Detroit, in Little Rock, in Memphis, in Philadelphia, Baltimore. And I mean, it makes sense because these are also areas which have been chronically underfunded in education for years. They have a smaller tax base to draw from. And I think they’re areas that have been neglected for many years. And so the rationale for these school boards aren’t achieving enough, they aren’t doing enough, we need to take them over, I think is a little bit of a red herring because it doesn’t recognize the fact that these school districts have also been under-resourced for many years. NOOR: All right, Colleen Kimmett, thank you so much for joining us. KIMMETT: You’re welcome. Thank you. NOOR: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.


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Jaisal Noor

General Assignment Reporter

Jaisal is a host, producer, and reporter for TRNN. With his expertise in education policy and systemic inequity, he focuses on Baltimore, Maryland. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio NewsDemocracy Now! and The Indypendent.

Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years.