NOLA's Failed Education Experiment

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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To be sure, the failures of public education in pre-Katrina New Orleans are well-documented and constantly reiterated in forum after forum. Even given the inherent problems of a teach-the-test national environment where broad learning is consistently narrowed and critical thinking is less revered than memorization, it can be said clearly that the public schools in New Orleans were not doing a good enough job. In New Orleans, moreover -- perhaps even more than in most other cities -- education had become, for a few politicians, little more than a way to generate graft.

But even conceding all this, one has to ask where on earth the proponents of a "market-driven" approach to public education got the idea that anything the public sector could do, the private sector could do better. Did they get it from the sterling job private hospital corporations and insurance companies have done to assure that all Americans have access to adequate medical care? Did they get it watching the delivery of privately contracted services in Iraq or in post-Katrina New Orleans -- two places where any goods or services might cost a hundred times their actual value (sold by the private sector to government) and still not function correctly?

As New Orleans readies itself for another school year, there is a tendency to act as though the first year of the Recovery School District (2006-2007) never really happened, or that it was, at best, a dress rehearsal for the really real beginning for which we are now preparing. Unembarrassed by its dogged support for pretty much every wrong turn and the pardon it granted most of the missteps taken by the RSD under its initial superintendent Robin Jarvis, The Times Picayune has once again emerged as chief cheerleader for the next RSD leader, willing to excuse any number of misspent millions and failed opportunities from the RSD's first year as it anticipates the correction of these problems in the coming year.

Misspent? Well, there was the $20 million the RSD managed to spend on security for its 22 campuses, altering the ratio of students to security guards from a pre-Katrina 333-to-one to a post-Katrina 37-to-one, while employing the services of out-of-state security firms with no background in school security and a tendency to hire inappropriately young and inexperienced personnel. There were the problems the private firm Sodexho had providing warm (much less hot) meals to the 22 schools, many of which in nine months never saw a single hot food delivery. (Frequently, Sodexho's cold food offerings arrived still frozen.) There was the failure to secure the perimeters of the scores of damaged, unopened public schools under the RSD's stewardship, resulting in gross vandalism, theft of building materials, and dangers to the surrounding communities. There was RSD's consistent inability to provide text books, curriculum guidance, and other teaching materials to virtually every campus for most of the school year, its inability to hire enough qualified teachers to staff at even a less-than-ideal student-teacher ratio, and its tendency to hire young, inexperienced teachers who quit without notice once they encountered the reality of the mission.

In fact, these and other problems with RSD had begun to break through to the public consciousness, and the beginnings of a call for returning to a genuine unified public school system were being tentatively voiced this past spring and early summer. The president of the Orleans Parish School Board, among others, had kept this idea alive. State legislators, including some of those who helped initiate the state takeover following Katrina, had begun to respond to public anger over the RSD's clear failure to provide public education in a manner even reaching the poor standards of the pre-Katrina public schools.

The relatively gargantuan salaries of many of the consultants who appeared to rule the new system was another factor in the public's general unease. Functionaries of the accounting firm Alvarez & Marsal, for example, which will have taken more than $50 million out of its New Orleans public schools' operation by year's end, were earning in the multiple hundreds of thousands, billing at anywhere from $150 to more than $500 per hour. The firm's contracts continued unchallenged, despite the fact that one of its chief assignments -- the disposition of left-over NOPS real estate -- was being handled without the services of a single architect, engineer, or construction expert. This omission cost the city a year of progress in determining how and where to rebuild broken schools, and endangered hundreds of millions of dollars in FEMA money. It only came to light when the two Pauls were forced to hire yet more consultants for real estate duty, and to bring in the National Guard to oversee the engineering operations.

But just as the public mood concerning the competence and honesty of the contractors and their ideologically driven political supporters had begun to turn, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten announced the guilty plea of a former NOPS school board member who had lost her seat in a bruising 2004 election. Ellenese Brooks-Simms, a former teacher and ex-principal and a politician who made a career out of being holier than thou, had admitted to taking $140,000 in bribes from lobbyist Mose Jefferson, brother of embattled (and now indicted) Congressman William Jefferson. Mose's client, JRL Enterprises, had paid him $900,000 in lobbying fees to promote its math-teaching software. Mose used some of the money, presumably, to have Jefferson insert millions of dollars worth of business for JRL in earmarks; Brook-Simms’ $140,000 was supposed to buy her support for adopting the software for NOPS schools, and, in fact, expensive JRL software was purchased by NOPS during her term.

Brooks-Simms' acknowledged culpability was roundly condemned by all local media. The fact that she is an aging African American woman also lead to a lot of ad hominem racist blogging against her in local forums. She was a ripe target; sticking pins in her pomposity and hypocrisy was easy. Everyone realized that the timing of her plea was almost certainly tied to the higher-profile William Jefferson case, to which her crime appeared to be nothing more than a small emendation. But the timing also coincided with the closing days of a volatile state legislative session this summer, in which legislators who had originally opposed the state take over of the NOPS schools, and who had exposed the failures of the RSD, were maneuvering toward some sort of plan to return the RSD schools to the newly refurbished NOPS administration. Such a shift almost certainly would have also revived calls for collective bargaining as well, and ultimately brought back to life the moribund union (United Teachers of New Orleans), killed by Katrina, or possibly a new union.

Brooks-Simms' guilty plea cut that talk short, as if her crime somehow "proved" that public officials were less likely to conduct the public's business honestly than privatizers and their consultants would. On this point, Gambit Weekly editor Clancy DuBos was explicit: "…the conviction of former Orleans School Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms on federal bribery charges, while occurring totally outside the legislative process, reminded everyone why the RSD was created in the first place and probably cemented the district's future viability."

Over the course of nine years, JRL – a New Orleans-based company -- was the beneficiary of $38 million in congressional earmarks. But, while William and Mose Jefferson and Brooks-Simms are all under investigation or found guilty, the company and its president have faced no charges whatsoever. That is a snapshot of how privatization works. These politicians will almost certainly do time for their alleged crimes. But the owner of JRL, the one who thought he should put $900,000 in Mose Jefferson's hands for lobbying fees, is barely tarred by this scandal, despite being its enabler and ultimately its architect.

Meanwhile, the security firm that billed RSD more than $20 million defends its profiteering by noting that no student was killed during the previous school year -- thin proof given that no student was killed on campus in the previous 60 years either (with one sad, anomalous exception). That company, the Guidry Group from Texas, will keep its contract in the coming school year. Sodexho has never explained why it could not deliver hot food to those 22 campuses, and no public or media entity ever held its feet to the fire for that explanation. Its contract, too, continues. Alvarez & Marsal, for its part, merely said "whoops" when its lack of competence in the field for which it held a $30 million contract was exposed.

Meanwhile, the RSD scores were abysmal even by the old NOPS standard. Fewer than 30 percent of its eighth graders even approached "basic" on Louisiana's version of high-stakes testing called LEAP. Technically, all those who failed to reach that relatively low mark must repeat the grade.

The new RSD superintendent, who comes to town with a nearly $300,000 compensation package (average teacher salary hovers in the mid-to-upper $30,000 range), has vowed to do better. He has brought with him a team of people who worked with him in his previous assignments in Philadelphia and Chicago, and has, in just a few weeks, increased the size of RSD's administration by scores of people and millions in new payroll. Plans are being developed hurriedly to fix long-broken amenities, such as bathrooms, and to enhance the appearance of the RSD schools. A great deal of money has been spent on teacher recruitment as well, and many new, young teachers are arriving via Teach for America, among other routes. Whether any of them will stay or succeed in their mission remains to be seen.

What is already clear, however, is that the news media in New Orleans, focused as always on leading the cheer for the next savior, has allowed the failures of an entire year of public education at the expense of thousands of children to be forgotten, to quietly disappear as though it just takes a year of abject incompetence and remorseless failure to get the engine of public education re-started.. For education to work here for the least prepared, the least motivated, and the most impoverished children, the entire community has to stand together in one place and agree on some basic human concerns. So far, all the privatizers and their enablers and accomplices have managed to do is create the illusion of the "buy-in," their telling phrase for such community-building. Many have been paid handsomely for their service in this cause; little or no difference has been made by their efforts.

The greed and guilt of a few public officials (easily matched by the legal and sanctioned greed of many private vendors and contractors) have been used as a whip against the legitimate aspirations of community organizing, unionization, and the building of a level playing field. The city must encourage such aspirations if it is to survive as a place for human beings to live lives of growth and fulfillment.

The state has to do several things in order to legitimize its actions. The schools have to be returned to the community in a manner that re-establishes accountability, not run by consultants for the short term and the quick profit. If that means a return to being run by publicly elected officials, that is the price we pay for living in a democracy. Curriculum and services such as security and hot meals should derive from the local population and economy, not be imported via giant education and service corporations. The right of teachers and other school workers to organize and to bargain collectively cannot be denied indefinitely, nor those who attempt to organize such basic rights punished for their crimes.

The market drives only to one location: profit. That is a legitimate destination in business. But education, like medicine, ought not operate under the rules and expectations of business.

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