Tolerating Failing Schools in New Orleans — So Long as They’re for Black Kids

The post-Katrina education reform shook up the school system; it’s time to do it again

What if I told you that 41 percent of the bridges that you drive across are faulty? Or, 41 percent of hospitals closest to you were deemed failing? Imagine if financial regulators found that 41 percent of banks regularly mismanage personal accounts. If any of these hypotheticals were true, you would protest loudly and demand they be fixed or improved.

Well, in New Orleans, 30 of 72 public schools (or 41 percent) have just received a “D” or an “F” grade, according to the Louisiana Department of Education. Our Voice Nuestra Voz, a non-profit education advocacy group in New Orleans, analyzed the school performance scores data and found that approximately 15,000 students attend these failing schools. And failure is trending. The website The Lens, which covers public education in New Orleans, reported that 65 percent of schools have declined in performance over the last three years.

“Our community needs to be more informed about these schools’ scores, and CMOs [charter management organizations] need to be held accountable for their unacceptable performance,” said Mary Moran, executive director of Our Voice Nuestra Voz, in a press release announcing the launch of the campaign #30NolaEdWatch, an initiative to hold these schools accountable.

This all sounds familiar.

Demands for a radical overhaul of the Orleans Parish school system in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were predicated on low test scores. But opponents of the proposed reforms said scores were used to justify the overturning of a black-run system, to fire black teachers, disempower a traditional district and profit from a public good. The cries for reform won out, leading to the dismantling of New Orleans’ school system, eventually resulting in a nearly all-charter school district.

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But the conversion didn’t stop the disagreements about using standardized tests to measure success. Amidst years of debate in the legislature about how to evaluate and measure the performance of students and schools, the state board of education adopted new, more rigorous education standards in 2010. Alongside the state legislature, they finally settled on new tests that were introduced in 2015 to measure performance against the new standards. There are other elements that contribute to the letter grades, such as attendance, but test scores remain the main factor. Those who argue against using tests as the main indicator of success may dismiss the current grading system as fervently as they did pre-Katrina. But those who championed reform must accept failure, as defined by their own terms.

On November 27, The Lens reported that Jay Altman, CEO of the charter management organization Firstline Schools, believes the most recent results show that charters didn’t have the capacity to adapt to tougher standards like their parish-wide counterparts. “The resources to develop a comprehensive curriculum that aligns with those [new standards] exceeds the capacity of a single charter or group,” Altman said.

A lack of resources and capacity is exactly what opponents of school takeover argued — to which the reform crowd replied, “No excuses; Schools must be held accountable.” In 2012, Altman said, “If we can keep an accountability system and say, ‘Here’s the bar, and it’s set high, and if you can’t meet it, someone else is going to run your school, New Orleans could become the only city in the country where every kid goes to a good school.” Meanwhile, two schools that Altman oversees got a “C” and three got a “D” last year (two of which have since received a higher grade).*

So how long should charter groups be allowed to manage failing schools?

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I’ve long held that performance should go well beyond academics; how schools treat their most vulnerable is a telling indicator of their quality. According to an analysisof 2015-16 federal survey data by Politico and the nonprofit newsroom The Investigative Fund, “Seven of the 10 school systems statewide that used the most restraints and seclusions per special education student were charter school companies in New Orleans.” They also found that one student was restrained or secluded 160 times at Success Preparatory Academy in New Orleans. In the previous survey year, 2013-14, that school had reported no use of restraints and seclusions on special education students.

Another way to measure progress, in addition to increased percentages of black folk in non-failing schools, is when kids of all races have an equal opportunity to attend failing schools. Equal opportunity goes in all directions. To that point, the non-profit advocacy group Urban League of Louisiana showed in their new report that there are virtually no white students enrolled in “D” or “F” schools in New Orleans Public Schools (less than one percent). In contrast, 77 percent of white students are enrolled in “A” and “B” schools.” These findings are in line with a new Associated Press analysis of national enrollment data, which show charter schools as some of the most segregated in the country. These kind of results run counter with much more important goal of improving race relations, hyper-partisanship and even democracy.

It’s no longer acceptable for us to say that it’s ok if our bridges, hospitals, banks and schools are failing — so long as they’re for black people only. Brown v. Board changed that in 1954. Sixty-plus years later, our institutions need to work for all of us. If accountability is good for the goose, it must also be good for the charter school community.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.

*Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the change in grade that two FirstLine Schools received — they have received a higher grade since last year, not a lower grade.

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).