New Orleans Years ago New Orleans and many parts of Louisiana were referred to by various observers as “banana republics,” meaning corrupt empires run by demagogues, contemptuous of their citizens and normal democratic process. Some would argue those were just the days of Huey Long, Leander Perez, and their ilk, bigger and badder than life. The one reason that these old school, fast walkers and slick talkers could prevail is that they could look you in the eye and say, in essence, count my votes at the election, I’m what the people want, you don’t like it, vote me out.
Listening to Patrick Dobard, the blazingly fast talking, quick witted Superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans, being interviewed by Jessica Williams of the Lens, the local on-line “newspaper,” I couldn’t help thinking that the real difference between then and now was that now the same tricksters didn’t believe anymore that they have to face the voters in an election. From listening to him quickly run through various euphemisms, rationalizations, and contradictions, the basic message seemed to be that elections, democracy, and the rest of that hullabaloo was just not necessary by his lights because they knew best and cared about the children more, and that was his narrative and by god he was sticking with it. There is a political philosophy defined by this kind of anti-democratic, authoritarian transfer of governance and power to the state, called fascism, but though that might technically define the situation, it doesn’t help to solve this problem, so I’ll just let that pass.
Repeatedly asked by Williams and various parents and others from the audience why the community’s voice had been silenced and their participation avoided and vetoed, his answers ran the gamut. He believed there was “more accountability” now than under an elected school board. He just about made me swear off ever using the phrase “civic engagement” again, by arguing that an informal, every once-in-awhile solicitation of input from parents and community was somehow superior to appropriate, democratic governance. Input is neither influence nor power, but that goes without saying.
Here’s the situation. In the turbulence of Katrina eight and a half years ago, control of the majority of the public schools in New Orleans were usurped by the state into the Recovery School District, and despite Superintendent Dobard’s vehement denials, this seizure was always promised to be temporary until schools were back in shipshape. The original period was five years, but now eight years later no schools have returned to the jurisdiction of the elected school board and voter control. Dobard claims he, RSD, and the state are neutral on these questions, but his oft repeated watchwords for school success always started with the word “autonomy,” and no one needs a Webster’s to understand that if they are promising charters “autonomy” that means that it’s their way or the highway without messing with those nasty voters and taxpayers out there.
Dobard works for the Department of Education, a state agency, and it’s governed, if at all, by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (B.E.S.E), which elects one member from the New Orleans area and the rest statewide. In the traditional north-south split in Louisiana and time honored state versus New Orleans politics, there’s no pretense of local control of the schools, nor does Dobard seem to believe that’s even a good idea. In the short hour, his ideology was contradicted by himself or others numerous times but he stubbornly hewed to his message. At one point he took indirect credit for pushing out Steve Barr and his controversial Future is Now Schools from local McDonough High School, but later changed sails and claimed it was about the condition of the building even while denying to one questioner that there was any problem with the building. His claims of great community and parental input similarly came crashing down as a member of the McDonough advisory committee asked why they were not informed by BESE, the state, him or the RSD about the school being closed for reconstruction. Needless to say, there was no answer to that question.
The Lens reporter asked about how he could argue there was so much accountability and openness from the local charter school boards when they were constantly closing meetings that were public by law, and his run around answer was a marathon that ended nowhere. The obvious question not asked was how Dobard or anyone could claim that with unelected, self-appointed charter school boards, there could be any semblance of claims to honest representation, much less democratic norms. Autonomy first and foremost, might have been his honest answer, and parents and New Orleans citizens take the hindmost would have been the obvious reality.
The only certainty I felt after an hour of listening to one rationalization and euphemism after another was the fact that clearly no charter schools under the thumb of the Recovery School District in New Orleans teach civics anymore. In my day the one lesson I learned well in civics classes in New Orleans public schools at F. W. Gregory Junior High School and Benjamin Franklin High School was that democracy matters and was even worth fighting for in fact. Dobard and the RSD seem to not teach that anymore, and nor, tragically, do they even seem to believe in it.