New Orleans In the wake of Hurricane Katrina the State of Louisiana conspired with various conservative interests to break the largest union in the state, the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO/AFT), fire 7500 school district employees, many of whom were members, remove democratic accountability in a state coup against the elected school board, and use federal Bush money to hijack the system creating the largest charter school system in the country. Now, almost 6 years after Katrina a reckoning is finally coming, though there is no guarantee that citizens will be able to reassert accountability over our schools at least we will have an opportunity to try. Several forces are coming together to make this possible.
A lawsuit filed after the storm has been approved as a class action in the name of teachers and principals and is being heard today about the illegal usurpation of the system which voided protected and contractually guaranteed layoff procedures including notice, creation of a layoff list by seniority, and other basic requirements of just process. The state and the business community were in such a hurry to break the union and steal the school system from New Orleans taxpayers and voters that no rules or rights were allowed to stand in their way. A system that has now been beat down from over 7000 employees to less than 600 because of the privatization of the schools into charters is not going to suddenly say “I’m sorry,” but some justice is long overdue, and the price could be steep.
At the same time the autocratic czar of the state education system is finally moving out of the way after a contentious several years which is allowing long silenced voices to finally be heard. This does not just mean the that “amateur hour” is over as a state teachers’ union called the insertion of cheap and untrained labor from Teach for America and other Gates and billionaire funders, but it does mean that the silenced voices of experienced teachers with 20 and 30 years in good system are pushing back, including some who have been elected to head school boards in other big Louisiana districts that escaped the Katrina hijacking but are appropriately concerned about the both the unwarranted charter takeover, the lack of accountability, and the unfilled promises of test-based teaching. For all of the sound and fury of the presumptuous and undemocratic “reformers,” they have not produced the improvements that their “ends justify the means” strategy tried to claim.
In short if you live and die by testing, and the needle doesn’t sufficiently move on the tests, then real teachers with real training and real lifetime commitments to children and education are going to be hard to continue to ignore. Then no matter how many so-called “business leaders” are going to trumpet the union busting and the privatization or how many billionaires with private school background are going to try and impose their will, parents who are responsible for seeing their children actually learn something other than what is like to be part of a test tube lab experiment for school privatization and teachers who know what they are doing, are eventually going to come together in a coalition , unite at the ballot box and finally straighten this mess out.