Bond Issues Along Protests on School Takeovers, Privatization, and Charter Expansion

New Orleans  Throughout the country parents, teacher unions, and community groups have been opposing the viral spread of privatization of public school systems and the efforts of charter school operators to expand their footprint in school districts. Perhaps the most controversial maneuvers are the state takeovers of local public school districts by removing duly elected school board members and replacing them with unaccountable managers.

The most famous was certainly the post-Katrina usurpation in New Orleans which has now led to all but four of the more than 100 schools in the district being run by charter operators. School districts have also been taken over in Indianapolis, threatened in Buffalo, in some California districts, and others as well. Despite only a small number of poorly performing schools of the forty-eight in the Little Rock School District, the state of Arkansas asserted control seemingly triggered by outside donors and advocates of charter expansion being opposed by the Superintendent, who was immediately replaced.

These fights have sharp dividing lines, but increasingly the claims of private and charter operators of improved education and test scores has not been proven by the actual results. Advocates of vouchers to accelerate the process of moving students out of public schools have also made progress in more than half of the states in the country and now have a staunch advocate as head of the Department of Education, but recent studies are indicating that students are falling behind in many of these private and parochial facilities. Claims from New Orleans and New York that such programs would decrease racial and ethnic segregation in public school systems are also achieving the opposite outcomes.

In the tug of war over school control, which is often cultural and ideological, the voice of protests have often been simply ignored by state governments and others. Events in the ongoing fight in Little Rock may have found a way to force authorities to hear their opposition using the ballot box to express their anger when presented with a school bond issue. A wide coalition of groups, including Local 100 and Arkansas Community Organizations, the former Arkansas ACORN, opposing the bond issue for new school construction and other programs in the district united under the banner of “Taxation without Representation,” made their protest of the state takeover clear.

Despite a united business community and being outspent by a ratio of ten to one, opponents smashed the bond issue by a margin of almost 2 to 1, 65% to 35%. The district is 70% African-American now and in many African-American precincts the margins against the bond issue ran 90% to 10%. Normally liberal districts in middle-income, hipper Heights area also defeated the bond issue strongly. The turnout was the highest for a bond issue in 17 years. The Governor Asa Hutchinson, whose administration was responsible for the takeover, campaigned for the measure and was embarrassed by the results. The state appointed Superintendent was forced to concede the loss even before balloting ended.

Bond mileage increases on property taxes funding school districts are usually the lifeblood of public schools. Often the district needs the money as much as the taxpayers do in these tough financial times, but even if this is playing with fire, there is no denying the power of the protest when a community unites to oppose privatization, charter expansion, and undemocratic takeovers of local districts. Little Rock protesters and voters may have shown others around the country the path to take to force their voices to be heeded.


Trump’s Education Pick is All about Free Market Parochial Education

Colin Powell Academy in Detroit, Michigan, one of the many schools abandoned since 2009

New Orleans    Doing a little research and realizing that Betsy DeVos, the Michigan-based Republican fundraiser, who is now in line to head the Department of Education, had never attended a public school but only religiously oriented institutions straight through college, made me raise my eyebrows a bit. Reading that in her push towards the disastrous charter-izing of the public school system in recent years in Detroit that she had never actually bothered to meet with any of the stakeholders in education there or visit a public school and interact with teachers, parents, or students, was even more disconcerting. She is not an educational advocate and activist, as she has been billed, but a stone cold ideologue without an iota of concern or compassion for the consequences of her ideology.

I guess the good news is that the federal budget only contributes 8% of the total education budget with 92% coming from local and state sources, so there is at least some limit to the damage she can do. Sadly, that’s small comfort.

I’m not a fan of charter schools and the privatization of public schools. I see enough of it in New Orleans, which now leads the country in the percentage of charter operated schools and is approaching 100% saturation. No small amount of my alienation has been based on their lack of accountability and transparency. In New Orleans we are gradually moving the schools back under the local control of a school board, though elite interests are attempting to extend their sway by dominating the contributions for candidates friendly to their interests, we at least now have a fighting chance at drawing the line and holding feet to the fire.

All reports indicate that DeVos would have none of that in Detroit, and strong armed the state legislature, controlled by Republicans, to prevent any bill from passage that would create any mechanism that hold charter schools accountable even on basic standards of education and fiscal integrity. She adamantly wanted absolutely no controls on the charters. The commission she opposed was even stacked with equal representation from charter and non-charter school leaders, moderated by an education expert, and backed by the twenty largest and best charter operations in Detroit. Not good enough for her. She wanted nothing. Period. The situation is so bad that most of the big charter operators have avoided opening in Detroit and even the Walton Foundation, the biggest moneybag supporter of school charters and privatization, has withdrawn from Detroit because the situation is indefensible. Her view seems to have been little more than laissez-faire, let the buyer beware, and unhappy parents can walk their children out of the schools with their feet.

New national studies, that were possible only because Common Core required at least some standard, national tests, seem to have established that for lower income schools and children the single thing making the most difference is increasing school expenditures. How does a DeVos, who wants to implement expensive vouchers to allow her favored private and parochial schools to flourish while draining taxpayer support for public schools, implement a program that applies that finding? In fact, for an ideologue whose main program is a free-market education, will she allow any standards for our education system at all in the United States?

Everyone understands that we need better schools. The rich ideologues like DeVos seem more committed to chaos, charters, church schools, and a separate but unequal system rather than education at all. The coming years seem destined to teach hard and tragic lessons to the country while committing countless crimes against the nation’s children.


Katrina at 11 Years

New Streetcar Line St. Claude Groundbreaking

New Streetcar Line St. Claude Groundbreaking

New Orleans    On the Katrina anniversary this year, I’m flying out of the country for two weeks to work in the Netherlands, Germany, and Canada. It wasn’t so long ago that this was a no-fly, must-be-home day because there were commemorations, volunteer projects, and other events that noted the progress or lack of it in the years since Katrina inundated New Orleans. Katrina is in the news now only as a reference point and warning since climate triggered 1000-year rains have recently flooded parishes from the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain across from the city up the river to Baton Rouge. It’s fair to say that Katrina has been off of the front pages for some time, and now is off the back pages as well.

So, how is New Orleans doing eleven years after the storm?

In the last year a hospital opened in eastern New Orleans for the first time, and the first project in the rebuilding of healthcare in the center of the city came with the opening of the new Veterans’ hospital. That’s good, and the expansion of Medicaid finally with the election of a new governor, the first Democrat since the storm, will mean a lot to the city and the state’s lower income families.

The schools are finally on a countdown to unification after their seizure by the state after the storm and the ushering in of the largest charter school experiment in the city. The schools will finally be under the democratic control of New Orleans voters soon, though the business and charter industry is moving rapidly to control the elections. The teachers’ union, decimated by firings after the storm, is organizing again and faced two more elections this year. There was a move finally by the state to equalize support so that some of the charters, many accused of not supporting special needs children but getting a premium for more advanced programs, are screaming in opposition to the new equity in the funding formula.

The slow, slough of rebuilding and downsizing public housing is still underway, and the crisis in affordable housing is still so intense that 80,000 can’t come home, even if they wanted to do so, because there’s no place for them. The major influx has been younger and whiter. A good example of the skewed public policy was the awarding of tax credits to a developer taking over an old school property in Treme to build more affordable housing for…artists. We now will have four housing complexes for artists while public housing is still half-done. There is in-fill construction in some of the older neighborhoods like Bywater that didn’t flood, but graffiti and anti-gentrification vandalism created the opening of the old public market as too upscale for the food desert that remains in the 9th ward.

The police have announced a training program that tries to reshape the culture of the department so that officers will act rather than conceal when they see their fellow officers involved in ethical breeches. The police department reassigned all of its community-beat police because of increased crime.

There is street construction everywhere, but there are estimates that it could take another $9 billion to put the city surface roads in safe condition. Neighbors noted that a project on Galvez has been stuck in a rut for a year now with water so deep when it rains, people fear drowning. A streetcar line though is scheduled for completion from Canal Street to Elysian Fields.

I should talk about jobs, but there’s not much to say really.

So, eleven years on, we’re moving in New Orleans, that’s for certain, but still it’s too often two steps forward and one step back, and that’s where there’s progress. Sadly, there are many areas that are just plain stuck.


A Charter School’s “Mission Creep” in St. Louis


City Garden Montessori School

New Orleans The bimonthly newsletter, Poverty and Race, is one of those semi-archaic, old school artifacts that still comes, unadorned, in the mail of all things, on buff colored paper without pictures, as it has for many decades, while steadfastly documenting and debating the necessary and ongoing steps to reduce poverty and the destructive impact of racism. Often more academic than activist, I have always found it a compelling touchstone and beacon for the work, often carrying it around, even unread, for months, until at least flipping through the pages. They keep on, keeping on, and I respect that.

Surprisingly, I found myself reading a piece I would normally have skipped over called, “City Garden Montessori School in St. Louis: A Story of Education Reform, Gentrification and Housing Advocacy” by the school’s executive director, Christie Huck, who was also described as a former community organizer. The rough outlines of the piece involve Huck’s moving to the Shaw neighborhood in St. Louis with her family hoping for diversity and seeing on her occasional early morning jogs the host of African-American children waiting for buses to the area public school in the dark, while middle class white neighbors debated how to get their children in magnet and other schools. She elected to send the first of her three children to a local Montessori school and joined with other parents of a similar persuasion to convince the school to become a charter school and expand to the rest of the elementary grades.

The story almost seems banal, it’s so often repeated around the country, but in Huck’s case she was not able to ignore the fact that two separate neighborhoods divided by race and class were increasingly stratifying in Shaw. Furthermore the neighborhood was gentrifying on steroids, raising home values and, paradoxically for families claiming to seek diversity, pushing out the black families. The school began an affordable housing program realizing that unless lower income and African-American families could afford housing in Shaw, it would devolve into a largely white, urban enclave. Many of the school parents whined and moaned that the school was in danger of losing its way for their money with “mission creep” by getting involved in affordable housing and trying to maintain the historic character of the Shaw neighborhood.

What a series of contradictions! I’m not a fan of charters, and am unsurprised that many parents pushed back in hopes of protecting their little island in the storm. ACORN had an office for many years on Grand Avenue in the boundaries of the Shaw area way before gentrification. As much as one part of me read the article shaking my head and suppressing an “I told you so,” the whole way through, most of me wanted to root for Huck and her allies efforts to embrace the full scope of the community and try to preserve its diversity and complexity not only in their self-interest but understanding that it was necessary and the right thing to do.

We may need fewer charters and god knows less clueless, self-absorbed gentrifiers, but just like we need to keep rooting for the Poverty and Race newsletter, we need to encourage and embrace the Huck’s who try stay the course, no matter the contradictions or how they got there to make the way forward work for everyone.


Charter School Takeover Success Myth Shattered

charter-schoolNew Orleans    Call it what you may, charterization, privatization, or whatever the opposition of business and other elites to the public education system in the United States has gotten the kind of superficial analysis normally reserved for fashion trends and fall season television shows. The basic analysis is contentious and conducted at the high decibels of yelling voices arguing either that public schools suck, teachers are worthless and greedy, unions are obstacles, or on the other side that schools are suffering from inadequate funding, poor physical plants, and systemic racism that is abandoning many urban districts.

All of which made it a relief to finally see a sober, factual analysis of the largest charter school system experiment in the country that New Orleans has been subjected to in the wake of the post-Katrina takeover of the schools by Andrea Gabor, a professor at Baruch College of the City University of New York published in the New York Times.

Looking at the Recovery School District, as the charter takeover schools were called, Gabor finds that this so-called experiment has meant that the “reforms have come at the expense of the city’s most disadvantaged children, who often disappear from school entirely and, thus, are no longer included in the data.” Plain English: the charters only look good because they have been allowed to “cook the books.” Gabor quotes one of the few black charter-school leaders in the city saying, “There were pretty nefarious things done in the pursuit of academic gain” including “suspensions, pushouts, skimming, counseling out, and not handling special needs kids well.” This is the inevitable result of a system designed to teach to the test to survive. If you aren’t willing or able to educate the children, then get rid of them so that they don’t count against you in the scoring.

What’s going on? Gabor documents the following:

· After schools are taken over by charters, less than a third of the students in the previous school are enrolling.
· “In the decentralized charter system, no agency is responsible for keeping track of all kids,” meaning dropout rates are unreliable. An outside agency using Census Data from 2013, “found that over 26000 people in the metropolitan area between the ages of 16 and 24 are counted as ‘disconnected,’ because neither working or in school.”
· Takeover schools that were rated “F” as falling once charterized become “T” for turnaround, and thus are not counted as “failing,” “nor would 16 “D” schools. In fact “40 percent of RSD schools were graded ‘D,’ ‘T’ or ‘F’” in 2013-14.
· Most of charter performance have been “doled out selectively, mostly to pro-charter researchers, and much of the research has been flawed.” She cites a humiliating incident last year when the Cowen Institute had to retract a study claiming that “most New Orleans charters were posting higher-than-expected graduation rates and test scores.” Cowen had been the former head of Tulane University and unabashedly a charter cheerleader, including putting a million of Tulane’s money in a post-Katrina charter that would give preference to the children of professors and employees.
· A Stanford University center claimed progress with a flawed methodology that compared charter school performance to a supposed “twin,” even though there are no non-charter schools in New Orleans now.
· African-American educators argue that “the charter movement won’t have ‘any type of long-term sustainability’ without meaningful participation from the black community,” which in New Orleans is 60% of the city.

It goes on and on, but Gabor’s bottom line is worth remembering:

“For outsiders, the biggest lesson in New Orleans is this: It is wiser to invest in improving existing education systems than to start from scratch. Privatization may improve outcomes for most students, but it has hurt the most disadvantaged pupils”

In a city like New Orleans and many other urban districts throughout the country, the public school system is populated with “disadvantaged pupils” and minorities. Time to stop proselytizing and start educating.


Going Old School with the Teachers’ Union

indexNew Orleans    I have hugely mixed feeling about my old high school in New Orleans, but finally I found myself in a situation, sitting next to another alum, my daughter, Dine’, where I found that I had never been prouder of the teachers at Benjamin Franklin High School than on that night in that auditorium.   In the long and bitter post-Katrina story, these were real heroes as 85% of the faculty had stepped forward and stood up by organizing the United Teachers of Franklin affiliated with the United Teachers of New Orleans, a local of the American Federation of Teachers.

Few will forget that one of the most ignominious stories of the aftermath of hurricane was the “never waste a crisis” mentality that found the school board terminating more than 5000 teachers and school employees and not reopening the schools in the fall of 2005, allowing the state and those trying to take over the system to seize most of the schools through the so-called Recovery School District and launch what continues to be the largest charter school pilot in the country.  Part of the collateral damage of course was also the devastation of UTNO, the largest, and arguably the strongest, union in New Orleans and voiding of all collective bargaining agreements.  Successful lawsuits filed at that time for the termination and rehiring proved breeches of the contract and though they are still pending should add up to billions, if there was justice in any settlement.

The Franklin story was one of the travesties of that time, since not only was it universally seen as the best public high school in the city and state, but it was also ranked annually as one of the top schools in the country.  The charterization of the school was little more than unaccountable and unconscionable re-purposing of a huge public asset by an insider group wanting less interference from the elected school board, read African-American, leadership in the overall supervision of the school.  Sitting at the public hearing called by the board on the question of whether to recognize the Franklin teachers’ union, no one commented on the fact that in this majority African-American city the board sitting in the front rows lacked any African-American representation, but that’s another story.

The teachers were eloquent in making their presentation.  They wanted equity, rather than a wildly arbitrary pay scale benefiting “picks and chooses” of the principal, now being paid $172,000 according to the on-line Lens report, they wanted job security rather than an annual application process, and they wanted a voice in educational policy from their position in the classroom rather than lectures from lawyers and accountants.  Who could disagree?  As it turned out almost no one.  Parents and students spoke in support of the teachers.  A couple of alums demonstrated their anti-union animus in one case offending the teachers by calling them “amateurs” in a misplaced point about Latin roots, and in another case just sort of whining about the surprise to hear of a union and the wishing it would all go away.

I had my 2-minutes to express solidarity in behalf of our family.   It was easy to punch holes in the notion of “collaboration” when collective bargaining better expressed – and guaranteed – such a voice.  It was easy to remind everyone there that it was teachers and students that every study and all personal experience proved made education work and not “bricks and sticks.”   It was even easy to remind the crowd that the values of the school itself spoke to allowing these special teachers to have a special voice.  Finally, as an organizer of a union, I was able to remind them that the teachers already had built a union, now they had to get used to it.

Larry Carter, the head of UTNO, spoke shortly after I did and reminded them that UTNO was no longer the old UTNO and that the teachers at Franklin now had their own, almost autonomous union chapter.  He didn’t say that it was all different now because if the Franklin teachers are able to win a contract, they will be the only teachers in New Orleans to have organized independently and done so and won a contract on their own.  The anti’s were at best fighting ghosts.  The teachers were fighting for the future.

That’s the true Franklin spirit, and as proud as I was of the teachers, for a change I was even proud to say that I was a Franklin graduate.