Dallas Black Blog


New Orleans’ Failed Education Experiment in Privatization

Posted by DallasBlackBlog on Monday, September 3, 2007


Privatization runs amok in the post-Katrina New Orleans school system.

At his first public meeting before becoming the new superintendent of Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) in late spring 2007, Paul Vallas took questions alongside his sponsor, state Department of Education Superintendent Paul Pastorek (“the two Pauls,” as they have become known). At one point, Vallas was scolded by a member of the audience for referring, as nearly everyone has, to the current state of public education in New Orleans as “an experiment.” The scolder was a white teacher, who reminded the two Pauls that black people might be sensitive to the idea that they were subjects of an “experiment,” what with the memory of the Tuskegee syphilis protocols and other past unpleasantness not yet entirely forgotten.Mismanaged and undersupplied, the Recovery School District resembled, at the end of the 2006-2007 school year, nothing as much as a failed experiment. It consisted of 22 schools, enrolling perhaps 9,500 students, nearly all of them African American. The other 20,000 public school students in the city of New Orleans (my son among them) in the second year after Katrina were scattered among five officially “public” schools, supervised by the elected Orleans Parish Public School Board (NOPS), and 31 charter schools, answerable either to the local school board or to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).

Before Katrina, NOPS had been responsible for 130 schools and 65,000 students. Now, each charter school, operating under an agreement with either BESE or NOPS, maintains significant independence under its own board to hire and fire faculty, select curricula, engage vendors, and determine whether current students are meeting criteria to remain in the school, once admitted. For the most part, schools chartered by NOPS have some leeway to establish admission policies; most chartered by BESE do not, being officially “open admission,” though wiggle room for selectivity remains. One significant common denominator between NOPS and BESE charter schools is that teachers serve without the protections once afforded by a union; they can be punished for public speech, fired without review, and, in general, serve without protection from capricious administrative actions or the limited security they enjoyed when tenure rules were in place.

As state legislators wrote the statutes in the fall of 2005 that allowed the state to take over “failing” New Orleans schools following Katrina, there was a widespread notion that every school that reopened in the city would reopen as a charter school. This was an intention expressed publicly by the ailing superintendent of education (Cecil Picard, since deceased and replaced in March by Paul Pastorek), and one widely embraced by the same crowd that had promoted school vouchers and had been historically hostile to the “public” part of public education. But with too few chartering entities stepping forward, a significant number of students remained unable to locate and enroll in either a charter school or any of the five schools remaining under the control of Orleans Parish. (Those five were schools that had not been designated “failing” and also were not swept up by chartering entities. They do have selective admission criteria.) Those students became the responsibility of the Recovery School District that the state legislature devised in 2005, as did the several thousand students who migrated back into the city after the beginning of the 2006-07 school year.

The story of the RSD is, in part, a story of how the idea that public entities (either systems or individuals) were not fit or competent to run public schools came to dominate the reconfiguration of public education in New Orleans. That narrative was combined, of course, with the narrative that only private, market-driven forces can effectively improve school performance and carry on the tasks of public education.



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