Fall 2015 marks a decade since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. While the hurricane itself was destructive, the real damage and high death toll came during Katrina's aftermath, particularly in the city of New Orleans, where the forces of exploitative capitalism and a total failure of governance came together to create a truly monstrous outcome.
The October 2015 Teaching Resistance column in MRR details how the legacy of Katrina created a wide opening for the corrupt forces of education privatization, in the form of largely-unregulated charter schools, to effectively commandeer the public education system in the most-impacted areas – predominantly communities of color plagued by persistently high levels of poverty.
Writing from New Orleans, Roburt Reynolds has been working with young people for thirteen years and is in his seventh year as a full-time classroom teacher. He has taught History and English at different alternative, public, private and charter high schools across Chicago, Houston, and New Orleans. Contact Roburt directly through his email: email@example.com.
The Big Takeover of New Orleans
There’s no place like New Orleans. This is a statement that I’ve heard repeated endlessly and one I’ve even made. It can be made as a compliment. It can also be implied or inferred as a smear. It just depends on who’s doing the speaking and who’s doing the listening. New Orleans, LA, is home to almost 370,000 people, nearly 100,000 less than in 2004, before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. That notorious event changed how the future of New Orleans would be handled.
New Orleans’ history is tumultuous: seeped in corruption, the largest incarcerator on the planet, a long time capital of United States’ slave ports, murder, overt political seediness (David Duke), police abuse, intense poverty, racism, class struggle, and home to the largest slave revolt in United States’ History. The Crescent City is also home to the American foundations of jazz music, Creole culture, the first free black residential neighborhoods, and a long running tradition of incredible integration amidst stark segregation. Regardless of where citizens may land on these spectrums, the people of New Orleans retain a resiliency and a level of hustle that is so incessant, outsiders often wonder how it’s possible to stay so positive and hopeful amid so much overtly official deceit and plunder.
In 2004, New Orleans’ dropout rate was 70% and today, it disgustingly boasts the lead with incarcerations worldwide. This city and its poorer working class have never received much love from the status quo, nor the powers that be, even though the majority of US drilled oil comes from off the banks of the Gulf of Mexico. For those who look to Louisiana for their shadowy business, be they from the state or not, Katrina and its aftermath’s complications brought perfect opportunities for “The Shock Doctrine”, disaster capitalism and the ‘Chicago School of Economics’ financiers, spearheaded by Milton Friedman’s philosophies.
After the storm, American Secretary of Education and regular Chicago dart-board target, Arne Duncan, made the now infamous statement that the “best” thing to happen to New Orleans’ educational system was Hurricane Katrina. It was obvious to most working citizens that this statement was made out of salivating opportunism and glaring greed. Despite Duncan’s shiny smiles, his promises of education for all based on Race To the Top and No Child Left Behind, most thinking people were fully aware that the wolf was in the henhouse.
Since Hurricane Katrina, thousands of younger, whiter, less-experienced, and alternatively accredited teachers have replaced the 7,500 predominantly black and unionized teachers that were illegally fired right after the storm. At the time, many in the media argued that the firings were the result of a failing system that was being re-organized so it could be rebuilt correctly, in a new way that could show results through data. According to so-called experts like Arne Duncan and the lobbying group ALEC, a privatized charter school system with fewer oversight regulations could help in such a situation. Unions could be turned away and the people who own the charters could be freed of limitations in how they spend their money.
Since the inception of charter schools decades ago, spaces have been mindfully built with ideas of community and arts-integration, making good use of all-inclusive educational philosophies. It wasn’t until fairly recently that the world of privatized business interests started to use the methodology of charter schools as a practice for their business models. After 2005, charter schools began to popup all over the Gulf Coast, taking over public forums of education. After only a few years of study, many of the unsavory details of the privatization effort’s mishandling of schools’ funds have become more traceable and apparent. Nonetheless, the shift marched ever forward. Despite a forming, billion dollar class-action suit and legal victories for some of the fired teachers, most would not be invited back. A swift takeover was occurring in New Orleans on the tail end of the storm. In many ways, New Orleans is a Petri dish for the privatization of education experiment.
Companies like Teach For America (with financial ties to the Walton family), amongst countless others are examples of corporate entities that have invested in the idea of ‘alternative’ certification in efforts to quickly transform recruits of their programs into officially certified “teachers”. In the last two years, 96,300 people became teachers in the US. Nearly 1/10th of them were recruited by TFA and the majority of TFA recruits get planted in lower income communities and lower performing schools. There are 619 entities in the US that provide alternative, fast-track certification for people to enter the classroom as full time teachers with little to no experience.
Typically, a recruit in an “alt-cert” program can become officially certified after a six-to-eight week in-service, teaching in a school for a year, and being rated favorably by superiors (within the school and within the respective programs). All recruits are required to pay a large tuition fee. Adversely, most highly qualified, veteran, career educators go through a full, four year education program, incorporated with a student teaching practicum, where they observe for a number of months before they are even allowed to teach under the guidance of their mentor. Beyond that, the majority of them fulfill a Master’s program while still continuing regular certifications and accreditations in an area throughout their teaching spans. Ironically, an alt-cert recruit only needs a Bachelor’s Degree to qualify. The contrasts in preparation for the future teacher in these two scenarios are complete opposites.
Recruits in alt-cert programs often sign contracts that allow them to be farmed out to new locations that are mostly determined by the overseeing program. Some alt-cert programs require a recruit to stay in teaching for a very short time. Often, that time period is one to two school years. Then, they are allowed, if they wish, to completely leave the teaching profession. However, we are beginning to see recruits fulfill their initial time requirement in the classroom, and rather than quitting, getting pulled up into an administrative position (sometimes tripling their salary) by a colleague from their same alt-cert group. This is not an exceptional practice-it is becoming the norm. In less than seven years, a novice teacher with little-to-no experience can become a full-fledged principal, overseeing an entire school.
Another major issue with this overall scenario is that recruits are more often than not, sent to serve communities that they are not from and/or may know nothing about. Recruits are sent to states, cities, schools, and neighborhoods where they do not know the culture, the people, and they are not expected nor prepared to become involved in any other way than to show progressive data that “proves” student achievement. Are these recruits sent to affluent areas or predominantly white environments? No. To be clear though, some teachers go through alt-cert programs after teaching in alternative or private schools for years, where a state certificate has only been required more recently. The numbers of these types of recruits in alt-cert programs are extremely low. Conversely, some recruits fulfill their requirements from their alt-cert programs, staying in the teaching profession for countless years, making tremendous impacts with scores of young people. Unfortunately, these types of recruits are also few and far between.
Efforts by companies with these recruits are superficially set up to “save” “underprivileged” populations under the falsely philanthropic banner: “Every student can learn”. These types of charters often trickily refer to themselves as “No Excuse Model” schools, allowing “no excuses” for data that does not show student growth. If a school does not show enough growth, it can be closed and another charter can be purchased.
Despite philanthropic involvement, many charters allow their boards to appropriate their funds however they see fit. This opens the door for financial corruption and fund misallocation to a staggering degree. When misappropriated fund scenarios abound in the schools due to corruption, who feels the negative effects most? Students, teachers, their families, and the future of working society at-large. Many of the teaching recruits fold under the pressures that are created by such scenarios. If a recruit quits for any reason-they still must fulfill their tuition debt. Millions are made by the alt-cert companies every year on thousands of new recruits entering the teaching force around the US, only to quit due to lacking resources, non-realistic preparation and/or a lack of support, often leaving students with no teacher at all and a “failed” recruit in serious debt.
So, whom are these programs REALLY serving? Neighborhood schools are a thing of the past; they no longer exist in New Orleans. Millions are spent out of budgets every year to bus students out of their neighborhoods, all across the city to different schools, filled with other students in exactly the same set of confusing social and sometimes dangerous logistical circumstances. Many students are waiting for the school bus at 5:30am, only to start class hours later. By the time they arrive, many are already understandably exhausted. So, more pressure is put on the teacher to show favorable results, or they can be fired. After all, Louisiana is a “right-to-work” state. No excuses.
Subsequently, student achievement is directly related to ANY out-of-school circumstance. If recruits move to completely unknown areas that they are benign or insensitive to, working with groups of kids that they know nothing about, how will that scenario’s design and arrangement affect the overall learning and educational environment of the students? Quite simply: negatively. More often than not, this equation will come out positive mostly for investing disaster capitalists and their shareholders. There are reasons that oil companies like BP and Exxon have gotten involved in education. There are reasons that banks like Chase and Capital One have gotten involved in education. Think it’s the overall wellbeing of young people? Every year, the US spends about $500 billion on education from ages 5-18. In 2011, a single year’s profits in k-12 education reached $389 million for investors.
The overall data for New Orleans has shown, quite clearly, that when 80% of the schools in New Orleans were charters (about three years ago), 56% were graded D or F schools. Since Katrina, 4 of the 107 schools taken over could report operating above the state’s average. Statistics show that most New Orleans high school seniors have not been able to meet the ACT’s state-college acceptance requirement, requiring new college students to pay for remedial classes that do not count toward their graduation. Since 2010, New Orleans’ Recovery School District (RSD) has closed more than twenty schools. In fact, only minorities of charter schools around the nation outperform district schools. This clearly exposes, with its own data, that the corporate charter monopolization of the public school system IS NOT PROVING EFFECTIVE. --Roburt Reynonds