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.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Pop Science is Whitewashing Katrina Pain and People



New Orleans     President Obama here’s some advice before you come to New Orleans to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Katrina: no matter what happens please, please ignore every bit of advice you might possibly get from the author and The New Yorker writer, Malcolm Gladwell about what to say about New Orleans and Katrina, and probably any other advice he ever gives you any the future. Recently, Gladwell was cited as one of the wise and rich men and women that Obama was consulting about his future post-Pennsylvania Avenue.

Gladwell has been on a bit of a roll the last number of years as the highly popular author of a number of books that might be characterized as “applied pop psychology” books including The Tipping Point, The Outliers, and others. Don’t tell me you haven’t read anything he’s written or I’ll ask you to give me the address of your cave. I’ve certainly read several. He specializes in pseudo-science stories that act like brain candy. You can’t read them quickly enough and they all seem smooth and sweet until you make the mistake of actually thinking about them and then you’re not sure. Whatever? It’s candy, so what might be the harm, right? Well, having just finished reading his most recent piece, “Starting Over” in The New Yorker labeled “Dept. of Social Studies,” which goes past candy, approaches unmitigated drivel, and then swerves into just plain dangerous, I’m convinced we need to get a petition together to the Secret Service to keep Gladwell as far away from the President as possible. Who knew Canadians could be so diabolical!

The thin reed Gladwell tries to grasp starts by trying to look at Katrina as a social experiment that might measure the impact of mobility on survivor families torn away from their homes by the devastation of Katrina, who were dropped or came to shore in other communities, and how they fared. Ok, that might be interesting, but then he tries to expropriate a seminal study done by economists indicting the United States at large for decades of abandoning urban America and perpetuating inequality by pretending the only thing under that shell was the issue of mobility, rather than disinvestment, racism, a deteriorated and mean-spirited social safety net, deindustrialization, and tax policies that have stagnated most of us while creating the super-rich. I could go on.

And, Gladwell knows he’s treading on dangerous ground throughout the piece. He tries to act like Katrina was bad news and that he would not have been riding with the business interests and social elites who were avowedly trying to whitewash the city, but unfortunately he wears his neo-conservative, neo-liberal biases on his sleeves. Implicitly, he totally supports every effort to prevent families from being able to return home from closing the schools to denying rebuilding funds to providing no healthcare. He pretty much sees the economy and population of New Orleans as a horror. He rationalizes this with a pseudo-science argument that the odds of lower income families “moving on up” are better in Houston, which he insults by calling it the “Salt Lake City” of the south, because the odds are slightly better that someone might crawl out of poverty, so darned are they lucky they were in a hurricane, surrounded by water and dead bodies, separated from family, friends, community and culture so they have a little teeny bit better chance in an economically stratified country to make it out. Spoiler alert: Please remember that there was no real way to read the study as arguing anything other than the odds were almost impossibly low for upward mobility anywhere!


How do you unravel this preposterous pretzel of an argument? We need public policies for cities and their population which create equity, not that forcibly relocate people on buses, planes, and trains. And, those policies need to be applied to every city. If Gladwell, wants to pretend to look at the impact of mobility and social science, it is interesting that nowhere in the article is there mention of Canadaville, a post-Katrina project of his fellow Canadian, the huge auto parts gazillionaire Frank Stronach from Magma International and his 300-family relocation project of lower income families to Simmesport, Louisiana several parishes up the river. Perhaps he avoided that because it is universally seen as a disaster and was abandoned by Magma and Stronach.

Gladwell finally ends his piece saying with this monument to sophistry:

In the past ten years, much has been said, rightly, about the resilience and spirit of those who chose to rebuild the neighborhoods they had lost. It is time to appreciate as well the courage of those who, faced with the same disaster, decided to make a fresh start.


Courage is triggered by choice, not a combination of disaster and coercion that for many families continues to this day. The overwhelming number of families still not able to return home are African-American. Where there was choice – and resources – in higher income white families, as has been well documented and even Gladwell seems to acknowledge, people overwhelming came home. On one count after another for lower income families Katrina was a pure and simple devastation that continues to this day. Gladwell would undoubtedly line up in favor of putting the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears, supporting pogroms forcing Jews to flee, and any number of outrages in the name of a few percentage points of progress in the by and by, rather than hunkering down and doing what’s right to support widespread progress for all the people where they live, including in urban areas like New Orleans.

Mr. President, don’t listen to Malcolm Gladwell. He may sell books, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a sycophantic apologist for the rich and, sadly, turns out to be a fool.

one of the homes at Canadaville

one of the homes in Canadaville

The Storm Next Time: How Safe is New Orleans?

120828073556-katrina-ann-01-horizontal-large-galleryNew Orleans   President Obama announced that he is visiting New Orleans on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Reportedly he wants to use the event to underline his climate change initiatives. The local papers are full of discussion about what needs to be done with many reviving the original President George W. Bush promise for 500-year storm protection. The cost is guesstimated at $100 billion. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu says “let’s go!” Congress has repeatedly said, “no go!”

The question continues to be “How Safe is New Orleans?” The New Orleans on-line news service, The Lens, convened a question and answer session with Dr. Paul Kemp, a geologist and oceanographer connected to Louisiana State University who was involved in the inspection of the levees after the storm, the now-closed Hurricane Center at LSU, and a controversial commissioner on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority, moderated by award winning reporter, Bob Marshall. To summarize the answer in one word from the experts: maybe.

This was not a crowd pleasing response, partially due to all of the “ifs, ands, and buts”, but let’s look at what Dr. Kemp offered. The levee system and the new gates leave the city better protected than it was at the storm. Kemp minced no words, saying that at the storm, there was “no system,” but an unfinished dirt patchwork. Now, he claims the pieces are put together, “armor,” meaning plastic sealing both sides of the levee is being added, and there’s an understanding that there has to be progress every day to maintain and advance the system.

Many were not assured. Saying something requires daily attention in the city “that care forgot” is a stretch. And, so is money in this broke ass community. St. Bernard Parish below New Orleans is already trying to scrimp on their share and they are often the first place on a storm’s path. Kemp under questioning said a minimum maintenance budget is $15 million, but no one really knows what the real costs are to maintain a multi-billion dollar system. Furthermore Kemp was clear that budget was not in hand, and repeated the need to keep improving daily or protection would be eroding.

Marshall’s questions were tinged with skepticism. In his introductory remarks he was clear that the minimal requirements to qualify homeowners for the national flood insurance program drove the levee protection plan, not the future safety of the residents. Metaphor mayhem broke out. Homeowners were reminded that they had fire insurance not to stop a fire, but to rebuild what they could after a fire and that this situation was similarly not about prevention, but potentially rebuilding. We needed a well-built third story house for protection and what we had might have is a decent one story dwelling.

Kemp on the other hand was more scientist than advocate or politician which was reassuring. Unfortunately most of the science and technology is rapidly developing and unsteady so there’s no solid ground there. He clarified the misconceptions on storm surge articulately as not one 20-foot wall of water but a bulge that rose to a level and then fell with the task being to prevent the highest crest from hitting the levee protection.

Bottom line Kemp argued that no matter the storm, if it were just a matter of over-topping the levees whether five feet or whatever, the city would survive. There would be water in the streets and low lying areas but it would run in and out, and be similar to terrible New Orleans thunderstorms. There was a big “if” though constantly repeated: if the levees are not breached.

The real battle of New Orleans is being fought now on whether or not everything is being done to prevent the levees from being breached and identifying the most vulnerable spots and gaps, then shoring and closing them. There lies the answer to the question, “is New Orleans safe?”


Please enjoy Widespread Panic’s Steven’s Cat.

Confusing Minimum Wages with Living Wages

minimum-wageNew Orleans    The back and forth between raising minimum wages and winning living wages or at least more livable wages gets confusing at the confluence of policy and politics, tactics and strategy, and that’s not helping us either nationally or locally.

First a story. In 1978, in New Orleans, we began an organizing drive to build the Household Workers Organizing Committee. Our first campaign was designed to organize household workers or “maids,” as many called them then to force employers enjoying maximum power in this historically burdened profession over their domestic workers, to have to pay the federal minimum wage covering these workers for the first time. At streetcar and bus stops, early in the morning, headed to the wealthier neighborhoods by Lake Ponchartrain or uptown along St. Charles Avenue, I would fan out with our team of organizers to talk to workers about signing a petition demanding enforcement of the minimum wage. Many were making one-dollar or less per hour with bus fare and lunch counted against their wage. Mandatory payments of Social Security withholding by employers were rare as hen’s teeth. Here’s the punch line for today though. When we would tell the women that they were now going to be covered under the minimum wage of $1.65, they would almost always talk to us and themselves about being paid the “top wage,” which was how they saw the bump, and needless to say, few expected there was any real chance that they would be paid the new minimum, and they were probably right to some degree.

A minimum wage is just what it says. The very least that can be legally paid. It is not a maximum wage or even a “top” wage. In fact workers, their unions, and others that value people’s work and labor should want to pay fairly and pay more, but they categorically cannot pay less.  The Fight for $15 has been valuable in raising the issue of wages, especially for fast food workers, and in several labor markets like Seattle, New York, and Los Angeles it has helped set a standard of sorts. In many cities there is a tension though between the fight to establish and win higher minimum standards for all workers and the campaigners for $15 driven by the publicity and demands in other cities.

Either way, we have always argued for fairer wages in various cities and states on two grounds: one, that workers needed and deserved fair and increased pay, and, secondly, that an insignificant number of jobs, if any, would be lost by doing so. A study reported in The New York Times seems to indicate that holding onto to the $15 banner in many cities may perilously undermine our argument about job loss and could dangerously erode our political support for the righteousness of our cause. The economists essentially argued that a wage bump that was NO HIGHER than 50% above the median income could likely be absorbed, which is certainly the case in New York City and Seattle, but that we were on thin ice over unknown waters at 60% and higher. The list of those cities was long in the study and included Los Angeles which is on the $15 track now, but also Columbus, Charlotte, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Austin, Houston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Denver, and Minneapolis. Over 70% of median by 2020 the cities would include Miami, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, Nashville, Omaha, Phoenix, and Atlanta.

We have argued before that we needed a standard that might be triggered to the cost of housing in many of these cities on the more adverse side of $15 per hour. More recently we have started finding some success at $10 and $10.55 an hour for various categories of workers in Houston and New Orleans. We need to keep fighting for $15 so that the debate remains focused, but we need to actually win increases for workers, especially those that are stuck bargaining for wages over the $7.25 legal federal minimum, and in so doing recognize that a 50% wage bump to $10 an hour or over is a life changing victory for them, and, as the Country & Western song says, “something we can be proud of” if and when we win.


Living Wages and What Do You Get?

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 8.15.01 PMNew Orleans     Here’s the good news: add New Orleans to the list of cities that have passed a better wage for any company that subcontracts with the city or receives more than $50000. Beginning in January 2016 wherever the city’s public money goes in significant amounts, workers will find their wages set at $10.55. The measure passed by a 6-0 vote in the City Council, despite hand-wringing earlier by the Mayor about the potential cost. It is unclear how many workers will benefit, but all the movement is in the right direction and for a change, listening to the Council members, was done for the right reasons very deliberately to address inequity.

Local 100 United Labor Unions has already moved into gear in anticipation of a favorable vote, winning recognition on a unit of more than forty janitorial workers in recent days, knowing they could get the bump. We’ll be back at the airport where a new administration there had moved back our prevailing wages to the minimum on the last contract bid. We’re all over an announced privatization at the LSU campus in New Orleans where 70 workers are being pushed out of civil service protections. We’re on a roll having won a $10 minimum wage for school workers in the giant Houston Independent School District, and even seeing support finally building for a higher wage in Dallas where we have campaigned on this issue for years. It’s not a sea change, but it all adds up.

Hillary Clinton in parsing her position around “living wages” and the fight-for-$15 campaign has essentially argued that she is in favor of $15 in the cities that have already shown the courage to pass the measure like Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle, but thinks the wages should be tailored to local market. Boiling it down, this seems to largely be little more than a position in favor of a higher federal minimum wage in the $10.10 per hour range that President Obama has advocated.

Roberto Ferdman in the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog,” pulled together some interesting points about the purchasing power of minimum wages and even a 15-buck dream raise. On numbers crunched by Pew Research $15 would be different everywhere:

In Honolulu, the priciest urban area in the United States, a $15 minimum wage is only worth about $12.24; in rural West Virginia, meanwhile, where prices are lower than anywhere else in the country, $15 is worth closer to $20. The only place where $15 is actually worth $15 is Allentown, Pennsylvania

A map put together by Pew indicates that in places like New York City, greater Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay area, and the Seattle area even their stair step to $15 per hour still buys a lot less, sometimes more than 20% less, than it would buy in other areas. A careful look at the map indicates that the same problem of diminishing purchasing power exists in the metro Portland, Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Miami, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, Philly, and Pittsburgh as well as some weird pockets like right at the tip of the New Hampshire-Canadian border. In other words the same cities where the pressure to raise the minimum wage is coming from. Unfortunately in most cases what we are winning is still piecemeal for contract workers here and for fast food workers there, while the inequity to workers trying to live on minimal wages in those cities is universal. Many cities, like Miami, New Orleans, Houston, and Dallas have been blocked from enacting citywide minimum wages in the corporate-political push-back to earlier living wage campaigns, most run by ACORN between 1995 and 2005.

What we have now is a patchwork of inequity on wages making even our victories, though hard fought, bittersweet. Almost all of the Republicans are described as “abolitionists” on minimum wages, not only opposing an increase, but arguing that there should be no set standards, substituting living wage campaigns for a plantation wage campaign. Democrats need to be careful on the business-friendly parsing being done by Hillary Clinton which risks faint praise for living wages as a pressure value in some urban pockets while leaving the rest of America’s lower wage workers stuck in the same rut waiting for a Congressional miracle.

We can’t really afford to change the debate from a federal minimum to regional wage rates like the ineffective, and often irrelevant, Mexican system. We need to speak with one voice.

It Takes a Village, but Do We All Have One?

Old School New Orleans Mortgage Records

Old School New Orleans Mortgage Records

New Orleans    These are the dog days. Walking the dog or loading the car means a full-on sweat. A cold shower is delayed until minutes before the dash to work. Unsurprisingly, fingers find themselves checking temperature listings in Wyoming and Ontario. Just saying.

Meanwhile the tasks of the day can’t be avoided or delayed any longer.

It turned out once I started opening all her mail over the last many months that my mother had not been getting the homestead property tax exemption which like the NFL Saints and Mardi Gras is one of the sacred traditions of Louisiana. Going to the elected tax assessor’s office in the swelter of August also used to be a sacred tradition when we had eight of them as people would line up for hours and days to appeal for a reduction. I can remember in high school hearing my dad talk about the experience more than once. So though I started trying to deal with straightening the mess out for her in January and came close to getting it done in February, the window for appeals was open now in August, so the clock was ticking.

Nothing is easy about the process. You have to have a current utility bill and 18 months’ worth of records. Of course my mother’s name was not on the bill, only my father’s, so there’s that. The power of attorney has to be recorded at the conveyance office at the clerk of court’s office across from City Hall, but of course when I present myself they assume that what the assessor needs is a copy of the bill of sale which lists my mother of course by her maiden name, which she hasn’t enjoyed for over 70 years.

What year did they buy their house, I’m asked? I’m positive it was after I had moved out of the city. We looked in a half-dozen old tax record books in a separate room for that year, but no luck, so that meant going over to City Hall to another office to find the right book and page, since they could find the records by the address. Computers? What computers! You had better hurry I was advised. They are only open up 1 PM for the public. What?!? But, what a surprise, the woman couldn’t have been nicer, and was able to find the record in no time. Hey, you want a copy as well, it’s only a dollar? You bet, especially if I never have to come back!

Then it’s to the assessor’s office where I steeled myself for the crowds and the wait. I walked in and asked if I was in the right place. No one was there. I took a number as instructed, they told me to sit in the front row, but I was alone. I asked the super friendly receptionist, and with a smile she said, yes, times had changed, no one could believe the crowds were gone thanks to on-line appeals, automatic computerized property appraisals, and only one assessor now. But, no, my paperwork wasn’t right still. The assessor’s office didn’t need the proof from the property records at the conveyance office, they needed me to record the power of attorney to sit in front of them for my mother in the first place.

So I run back across the street to the clerk’s office. $133 later,  I have the power of attorney recorded as I stood in a bank of desks and listened to the four women steadily handling paperwork, kidding each other about #7 didn’t know this procedure, desk #4 will help you, I’m too busy, and so forth with a machine like efficiency and a sense of humor unexpected in the bowels of the bureaucracy. What the heck, while I’m waiting the friendly lady at City Hall said I could get a copy of the original bill of sale now that I know my steel trap memory of when my parents bought their house was 1000% wrong and off by several years. What was I thinking?!?

Then back to the Assessor’s office. Back to the right desk. Whoops, the power of attorney though crystal clear that it covers all real estate doesn’t work for them because they suddenly want it to specifically name the address of my mother’s home where she spends 24 hours of every day.

Was I going to have to start all over with the clock ticking on the appeal? For all of the helpful people I had conversed to with my cause over these hours, now I was full-on reptilian, as my daughter cautions against continually as my inner organizer erupts. In February,  I had been sent the adjustment forms after calling. My mother had signed them, but then I had been told I needed five years of utility records, I thought, and couldn’t get them, which is why I was there now. Over the divider sat the woman who had sent me the forms it turned out, which luckily I had brought with me. I kept talking. They called supervisors who had authorized sending the previous forms. Maybe they could simply check my mother’s signature on the POA against her earlier signature and accept those forms? Talk, talk, talk, and finally where there was no justice, there was mercy, the forms were accepted with a lengthy scolding.

I walked out relieved and the super friendly assessor’s receptionist chatted me up as I walked out about how they wanted to make people happy. I went back to the counter and told them how close it had come before I reverted to another of my daughter’s wiles and went full meltdown, “crying Yankee,” as we call it.

It takes a village, but I couldn’t help thinking what might have happened to someone else and whether they would have ever gotten the exemption or qualified for the refund. I’m not so sure.