Flaherty: New Orleans schools had a “survival of the fittest” recovery
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. In January of this year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the following: “Hurricane Katrina was ‘the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans’ because it gave the city a chance to rebuild and improve its failing public schools”, according to ABC News. Now joining us to see if he thinks Katrina is the best thing that happened to the public education system of New Orleans is Jordan Flaherty, author of the book, Flood Lines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. Thanks for joining us, Jordan.
JORDAN FLAHERTY, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: So what do you think? Should all educational reformers be hoping for a hurricane?
FLAHERTY: Absolutely not, and it’s certainly painful for a lot of the people from the city, even those that might agree with Secretary Duncan, that he said those words. Overall, though, I think that what’s really painful is how little the people directly affected have been consulted on these changes. The families, the children of the school system, the parents, they have had very little say in these changes that have happened in the school system of New Orleans.
JAY: Now, we visited a charter school in New Orleans with Danny Glover, who was there doing an algebra project. The people there seem to be happy with the reforms. The kids were learning math in that particular charter school. And even some people who kind of instinctively politically were not very favorable to charter schools thought they were seeing some positive reforms there. I mean, what do you make of that?
FLAHERTY: I think that’s completely accurate. And there’s two important points that need to be acknowledged. Number one, that there are some excellent charter schools in the city of New Orleans right now. That’s undeniably true. Number two, the school system was absolutely in crisis pre-Katrina. We do not want to go back to the pre-Katrina days where our school system was in terrible shape. However, there will are some fundamental problems with this new system, what state Secretary of Education Paul Vallas has called the first 100 percent free-market education system in the country. And that is that although we have excellent schools in this system, you really need parents at home that can advocate and search out and research and find those best schools for their students. So, in other words, those who have the best resources, who have the family members that can really look out and research for them, get the best schools, and those students who often are the most in need get the worst schools. It’s this survival-of-the-fittest recovery that New Orleans has had, where the most resources go to those who have the most and the least resources go to those who have the least.
JAY: In terms of reforms, what are people asking for? I mean, is it a question of financing?
FLAHERTY: People want more control over their school system. Pre-Katrina there was 128 public schools in the city. A hundred and twenty-four of them were under control of the New Orleans school board, which was some form of elected management over the system. Now five schools are under the control of that school board, and the rest are either under state control or under control of these charters, with very little oversight and control to the people of New Orleans. So people say, let’s continue to have experiments, let’s continue to give people some level of autonomy, but let’s also have local control of the school system. What’s wrong with the people of New Orleans that they shouldn’t be allowed to have elected control over their school system? Some of the other complaints that people have are over, for example, special needs kids. They feel a lot of these new charter schools are cherry picking kids. They don’t have programs for special needs kids, they pressure out many of the kids that need the most help, and they only allow the kids that are already the academically high-achieving kids to be in their schools.
JAY: What percentage of the kids are in charter schools?
FLAHERTY: You know, well, it’s going up and down, but it’s around 60 percent of the kids are in this charter system, and the rest are mostly in these state schools, which are slowly switching over to charter, and then a very small percentage are under the Orleans Parish School Board.
JAY: So is there a particular racial characteristic to how this is organized?
FLAHERTY: Almost the entire population, more than 95 percent of the public school system is African-American. Basically, with the integration of schools, white students fled the public school system en masse. So we’re talking about an overwhelmingly African-American school system, whether in the most privileged or the least privileged schools.
JAY: So in terms of activism and organization, what are people doing to get more control of the school system?
FLAHERTY: Community organizers like Jerome Smith, who was a civil rights movement organizer, a big leader in the Mississippi Freedom Summer, has been fighting specifically over this takeover that’s happened to a school in his neighborhood, the Tremé neighborhood, which is the oldest African-American community in the country. An organization called Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children has been organizing around the militarization of the schools, this policing, over-policing, where we’ve had five-year-old kids handcuffed by police brought into the schools. The Southern Poverty Law Center, through its local office in New Orleans, has also raised concerns over the treatment of special needs students in these schools, whether they have placement available in some of these schools, as well as this over-policing in the schools. So those are some of the organizations that have been really fighting for changes on this.
JAY: In terms of the private schools and the public schools and the amount of money going into the public school system if it’s majority black and teacher-student ratios and such, how do they compare?
FLAHERTY: Well, pre-Katrina we already had one of the least funded school systems in the country, and that’s fundamentally what was wrong with this school system. It wasn’t that it was under local democratic control; it wasn’t that we had a powerful teachers union; it was that there was very little funding for the school system overall. Now these new charters have come in, and much of them have received extra federal funding, extra state funding, extra funding from foundations like Walton Foundation, Soros Foundation, Rockefeller, Ford. Many of them have made money available to these new schools, these new charter schools. They also receive many of the best facilities. So it’s been an uneven playing field. You give these new schools the best resources, the best funding, the first choice of teachers, and then you say, oh, charter works. Well, maybe it just works to give people the best facilities and the best funding and the first choice of teachers.
JAY: And what’s happening in terms of teachers unions and the charter schools?
FLAHERTY: Right after Hurricane Katrina the entire staff of the public school system was fired—7,500 teachers, janitors, lunchroom workers, everyone. The teachers union was the most powerful union in the city. It ceased to be recognized. Then teachers had to basically reapply for their jobs if they wanted their jobs. Many of them were replaced by these volunteers from out of town. Teach for America made New Orleans one of their major sites in the country, with about 500 teachers every year brought into the school system. So the teachers union barely exists anymore, but they’ve been fighting to come back.
JAY: How is that legal, to fire all the teachers and staff like that?
FLAHERTY: We have very low protection of worker rights in the state. Even the union, you know, we have what’s called a right-to-work state, which means unions have very little rights at all in the state and workers have very little rights.
JAY: So this praising of New Orleans as a model for educational system coming from the Democrats in Washington is also a model for how to break teachers unions.
FLAHERTY: It absolutely is. And we’ve seen that model be exported around the world as well. Paul Vallas was brought in from Chicago and Philadelphia, into the Louisiana, especially New Orleans, school system, has been consulting with Haiti in the aftermath of their earthquake. He’s just been brought in to Chile to consult as well. So this model is being exported as well.
JAY: Well, first of all, are results better? Do people think kids are getting a better education? And then you’re saying maybe they are, but it’s because they’re throwing all this extra resources at these schools that they wouldn’t if this was on a broader scale. Does that mean—is that the point you’re making?
FLAHERTY: And even some of those schools that have been trumpeted as success stories, the testing scores don’t necessarily bear that out. Some of these schools that have received the most resources still have very low test scores. And then the question remains: is test scores really the best way to measure, anyway? I think we need to question that. A lot of these schools in Louisiana—we have throughout the state high-stakes testing, meaning kids don’t advance to the next year unless they pass these tests, causing teachers to spend half the year teaching students how to pass the tests instead of teaching them the skills they should be teaching them. So the high-stakes testing has been a big problem in itself, and I think there’s a lot of doubt as to whether that’s really the best way to manage or to measure if those schools are as good as they could be.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.
FLAHERTY: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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