Adam Hubbard Johnson was trying to verify the claims of a miraculous transformation in Néw Orleans, and he went in search of the pre-Katrina data. Reformers said the graduation rate had grown from 54.4% before Katrina to 77% in 2012. That’s huge. But was it accurate?
He corresponded with a reporter. She used those numbers but didn’t know the source. He kept digging. Eventually he realized that the source was not city or state or federal data, but a charter advocacy group.
“A thought experiment:
Imagine, for a moment, that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had said five years after 9/11:
“I think the best thing that happened to the defense system in New York and Washington was 9/11. That defense system was a disaster, and it took 9/11 to wake up the community to say that ‘we have to do better’.”
We would rightfully find this crude and opportunistic. But in 2010 when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said
“I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘we have to do better’.”
the media either shrugged it off or embraced its thesis. The political and moral rot of the New Orleans education system pre-Katrina wasn’t just taken for granted – our political classes saw it as so manifestly depraved and corrupt that it validated the deaths of 1,833 people. Such is the hysteria with which conventional wisdom cements itself.
Like a tale out of an Ayn Rand variation of Genesis, the story of Katrina wasn’t one of nature’s caprice or racism’s legacy, it was instead the fortunate and righteous correction of liberal excess. And though graduation rates are not the only point of comparison used to prop up this perception (I will explore others later), they are the most accessible and finite.”
Why the missing pre-Katrina grad rate?
“The answer to this question illuminates, in a limited but potent way, what a corporate coup looks like up close. When education becomes charity rather than a right, an investment instrument rather than a civic good, the ability to distinguish between substance and marketing becomes by design, overwhelming. Like a refund department with a six hour wait time, the frustration in attempting to navigate this neoliberal maze of “private/public” responsibilities is precisely the point. Even the most basic of acts – hosting a website – turns out to be one of the primary reasons finding data is so difficult. The LDOE has had, inexplicably, five differnt primary domains in the past decade – from doe.louisiana.gov to doe.state.la.us to louisianaschools.net to louisianabelieves.net to its current, full-flown corporate iteration louisianabelieves.com”
He writes about the framing of the reform narrative:
“The story of Katrina and how it justified charter schools can best be summed up by Arthur Miller’s observation that “the structure of a play is always the story of how the birds came home to roost.”
“So went the Katrina reform school narrative in all its moral clarity. Circa 2005 charter school leaders, largely funded by the Walton, Gates, Koch families and given cover by neoliberal corporatists whose primary purpose appeared to be the act of looking busy, sought a PR coup. Though they were making incremental headway, there was little urgency to their cause. Two weeks after Katrina however, while 96% of corpses still remained unidentified and the Superdome had been reduced to a “toxic biosphere”, the story of how the birds had come home to roost was too good to pass up. Koch-funded and proto-Tea Party outfit FreedomWorks was the first to float this narrative on September 15th, both in the pages of the National Review and on their website, in an op-ed by Chris Kinnan.
[Kinnan wrote:] “There is a second rescue urgently needed in the terrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and one that is long overdue: saving New Orleans school kids from their broken public-school system. The tragedy of the storm provides America with a golden opportunity”
This idea of a “golden opportunity” to perform a dramatic experiment in New Orleans became conventional wisdom.
“All of this is to say nothing of the core fallacy at the heart of the “choice movement”: the presumption of dichotomy. Schools going bad? Poverty’s not the problem, abject racism’s not at fault, underfunding is irrelevant (Louisiana spent $1,636 more in real dollars per pupil in 2012 than it did pre-Katrina). No, it has to be teachers’ unions and local school boards. Get rid of those and let slick PR firms, Ivy League idealists, and hedge fund real estate interest come in and do it right. A third option, or a fourth option or any cost-benefit was never discussed. Within 10 weeks of Katrina, while the state’s largely poor and African American diaspora were scattered throughout the Gulf states simply trying to stay alive – the Louisiana State Legislature called an emergency session, passing ACT 35 which, as even Tulane’s pro-school reform Cowen Institute acknowledged, radically changed the defintion of “failing school” from the flawed but objective criteria of having a state score of less than 60 to include any school that was below the state score median, which, at the time was 86.2. Put another way: the state assured itself that their own Recovery School Board would control, by definition, at least 50% of the state’s schools no matter what.
“Overnight, 102 of the 119 locally control New Orleans schools, all primarily poor, all primarily black, were put under the pro-charter, primarily white state control. Not because they were “failing” – a school cannot “fail” to meet retroactive standards – but rather because they were vulnerable. No study issued. No ballot measure campaigned for. No discussion had.
“The corporate forces were too overwhelming, the liberal class too monied and distracted. The official history of a broken school system that was simply washed to sea, too convenient. And the truth – like the shiny new charter school system that emerged at its expense – was simply torn down and built again from scratch.”