Archives for category: New Orleans

Kristen Buras recently published a book about the dissolution of public education in Néw Orleans and its replacement by privately managed charter schools, staffed largely by inexperienced Teach for America recruits after the abrupt dismissal of 7,500 veteran teachers. Her book is titled “Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance.”

In the current issue of “The Progressive,” Buras explains what happened in Néw Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The story is different from what the major media say. It is important because so many public officials and civic leaders want to turn struggling districts into another Néw Orleans. Beware.

It begins like this:

“Within days of Hurricane Katrina, the conservative Heritage Foundation advocated the creation of a “Gulf Opportunity Zone,” including federal funds for charter schools and entrepreneurs. Slowly but surely, the narrative of disaster turned to one of opportunity, even triumph. We were told that families abandoned in the storm were finding new hope in transformation of the city’s public schools by charter school operators.

“Report after report praised New Orleans as a model for urban school districts across the nation. Charter school operators, most of them white, declared “school choice” to be the new civil rights movement.

“Now, almost a decade later, New Orleans is the nation’s first all-charter school district. Charter advocates describe the district’s achievements as nothing short of a miracle.

“The truth is quite different: Flooding New Orleans with charter schools has been disastrous.”

– See more at:

Larry Miller, an elected member of the Milwaukee school board and a member of the editorial board of Rethinking Schools, has written an excellent review and summary of Kristen Buras’ book–Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space— about the privatization of public education in New Orleans. New Orleans has gotten an undeserved national reputation as “the answer” to struggling school districts. The establishment in many other urban districts are looking at New Orleans as a model, but it is a model of what NOT to do. As Buras tells it, the reforms in New Orleans dispossessed the black citizens of New Orleans and created great possibilities for white entrepreneurs. A teaching force that was 75% black was dismissed and replaced largely by white Teach for America recruits.


Milwaukee is one of the urban districts where the civic and business leadership is looking longingly at New Orleans. Perhaps Larry Miller can share Buras’ book with them.


Miller writes: “A major theme to her research is that the New Orleans RSD is a Southern strategy to use market-based reforms to give control of public schools, attended by Black children in Black communities and often taught by Black teachers, over to well funded white entrepreneurs.”

2015 marks the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city of Néw Orleans and destroyed many public schools. This was the event that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan memorably called “the best thing” that ever happened to the schools of Néw Orleans.

So now it is time for a research conference about 10 years of education “reform” in Néw Orleans, which will be hosted by a new research group, funded by the pro-charter Arnold Foundation.

Mercedes Schneider, researcher and teacher in Louisiana, describes the conference here, as well as the origins of the all-charter Recovery School District. The media like to portray the Nola reforms as a great success. Schneider says the claims of a “miracle district” are false. Thus, one would expect the conference to feature strong voices on both sides of the issue, to debate the evidence.

Unfortunately, the best-informed local critics were not invited to speak. The strongest academic critic of the reform narrative—Kristen Buras–was not invited to speak. Buras published a scholarly study of the reforms earlier this year. She wrote it from the perspective of the “grassroots,” the students, communities, teachers, and local traditions. She started her in-depth analysis of the reforms in 2005. She was invited to sit in the audience.

This is Schneider at her best, drawing links among the players and assessing the overall significance of the event.

In a historic first, the Dr. King charter school in the New Orleans Recovery School District asked to return to the Orleans Parish Board.

“Friends of King Schools made history Tuesday by becoming the first Recovery School District charter school board to seek to return a campus to the oversight of the Orleans Parish School Board.

“The charter school board opted to leave a system built on choice, the all-charter RSD, by exercising its right to choose its authorizer. The vote to return Dr. King Charter School to the School Board was unanimous, said Orleans Parish School Board member Ira Thomas, who was in attendance. Thomas represents the district that includes King.

“The transfer must still be approved by the state school board and parish school board.”

Larry Miller is a member of the Milwaukee school district. Milwaukee has been a district subjected to the reform nostrums of choice for the past 25 years. It has a large charter sector and a large voucher sector. The shrinking public schools have a much larger proportion of students with disabilities than the other two sectors, which don’t want them. Despite the skimming practices of the two privatized sectors, neither the charter or voucher sectors outperform the public schools. Choice has not lifted all boats; in fact, it has shown no results other than to shrink the public schools. The city’s “independent” evaluator says that the voucher schools have a higher graduation rate, but that higher rate is accompanied by a 44% attrition rate.


Now the business community and other “reformers” in Milwaukee decided that having lots of charters and voucher schools is not enough. They want the whole district to be converted to a New Orleans-style charter district. Apparently no one told them that the majority of charter schools in the Recovery School District in New Orleans are rated D or F by the charter-friendly state. Or that the New Orleans district is ranked 65th out of 68 districts in the state in academic performance.


Milwaukee school board member Larry Miller here briefly reviews the nation’s four “recovery-style school districts”: the one in New Orleans, the Achievement School District in Tennessee, the Education Achievement Authority in Michigan, and the Opportunity Educational Institution in Virginia. The bottom line: parents lose representation and voice; staff are fired; academic achievement is stagnant.

After Hurricane Katrina, 7,500 public school teachers and other staff were fired by the new Recovery School District. Three-quarters of them were African American. Eventually almost every public school was converted to a privately managed charter, many staffed by Teach for America corps members.

The fired teachers sued for back pay. The Louisiana Supreme Court rejected their appeal, in a 5-2 split decision.

In October, the Supreme Court had overturned decisions favorable to the teachers in lower courts. The teachers said were dismissed en masse, without evaluation or due process.

At that time, the case was described in these terms:

“The case had ramifications beyond the public purse, and beyond the emotional and financial hit experienced by the employees, whose termination letters were in some cases delivered to houses that had been washed away in the storm. It became a symbol for people who felt disenfranchised when the state, saying the Orleans Parish School Board had failed its children, took over four fifths of the city’s public schools in the fall of 2005. Many teachers objected that they were all painted with the same brush as incompetent. And analysts such as former Loyola University professor Andre Perry said the layoffs knee-capped the city’s African American middle class.”

The earlier article explained the Supreme Court’s reasoning:

“That was not why the state Supreme Court dismissed the case, however. The majority invoked the principle of res judicata, which holds that a case cannot be argued if it covers the same people and arguments as a previous case.

“Indeed, most of the individual plaintiffs were members of the United Teachers of New Orleans. That labor union in 2007 settled several similar lawsuits against the School Board for $7 million, about $1,000 per union member. The Supreme Court decided those settlements sufficiently addressed the plaintiffs and questions in the current case.

“But the majority also accepted the defendants’ arguments across the line. Even if the case had not been dismissed, “neither the OPSB nor the State defendants violated plaintiffs’ due process rights,” Justice Jeffrey Victory wrote.

“The 4th Circuit Court of Appeal had found that the School Board should have created a recall list and systematically used it to hire back employees. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, while deciding that an employee hotline set up after the storm did not constitute an official recall list, determined that “imperfect” post-Katrina responses were good enough to satisfy the state Constitution given the circumstances.

“Furthermore, the fact that almost all the jobs disappeared permanently made a difference, Victory wrote: “The Teacher Tenure Laws did not envision, nor provide for, the circumstance where a massive hurricane wipes out an entire school district, resulting in the elimination of the vast majority of teaching positions in that district. It would defy logic to find the OPSB liable for a due process violation where jobs were simply not available.”

“Nor would the state have been liable for not systematically hiring the Orleans Parish employees, Victory wrote, because the Legislature gave the Recovery School District the auth0rity to hire whomever it wanted.”

Last week, Kevin Huffman and John Ayers resigned. Huffman was state commissioner of education in Tennessee, and he employed every possible strategy to make testing a centerpiece of education policy. Ayers was director of the Cowen Institute at Tulane University in New Orleans, which was greatly embarrassed when it released–and then rescinded–a “research” report claiming amazing gains in the charter schools of New Orleans. Both were big boosters of using student test scores to judge the quality and effectiveness of teachers, a methodology referred to as VAM, or value-added-modeling.


Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, one of the nation’s expert researchers on teacher evaluation, looks at the two resignations as evidence that the VAM-mania is failing and claiming victims. There is as yet no evidence that VAM improves teaching,  improves student achievement, or correctly identifies the strengths and weaknesses of teachers. As its critics have said consistently, VAM results depend on many factors outside the control of the teacher and may vary for many different reasons. A teacher may get a high VAM rating one year, and a low VAM rating the next year. VAM ratings may change if a different test is used. Yet those who stubbornly believe that everything that matters can be measured with precision can’t let go of their data-driven mindset.


The lesson: proceed with caution with a methodology that has no record of success and that inevitably places far too much importance on standardized tests.

Jason France, the blogger known as Crazy Crawfish, calls attention to dangerous losses of data and computers when charter schools close. The Recovery School District, which oversees charters, relies on the charters to make sure that computers have been wiped clean of student data.


But when the charters close, they have no employees and no longer exist.


The risk, he says, is not only the release of student private data, but the state’s lists of people whose children qualify for free or reduced price lunch. A public school has people assigned to protect this data. When charters close, no one protects it.


He writes:



The RSD has been in existence since 2004. It has taken the state 10 years, and a concerned citizen, for the department to realize student data needs to be protected, and that charter schools that have been disbanded and have no employees are not the best custodians of data or the future of our children.


The former spokesman for Future Is Now, which was running John McDonogh, when it was shut down by the State, said it best and in a way so obvious it makes you wonder how RSD could not have foreseen problems with its approach. Namely, to expect charters that no longer have employees to follow protocol is ludicrous.


Former Future Is Now spokesman Gordon Wright said the organization had no response because it no longer exists.


Many charters, like Future is Now/John McDonogh, have been shut down for acting irresponsibly. This school is a saga all in and of itself, and was closed before its charter was officially up for review. How ridiculous and irresponsible is it to expect poorly run, or irresponsible organizations to follow proper protocol when they may not have money to pay salaries or any employees to follow said protocol and have not exhibited the best judgment when they were in operation?!?


Dozens of charters have closed down and changed hands, and even more RSD direct run schools have come and gone. By their own estimates, RSD has lost control of over 1600 items, including laptops. Those are the items they lost or miscoded in the last 4 years. They have lost so many items over the 10 years they have been in operation there is probably no way to account for them all.”

In Indianapolis, there will be a crucial school board election tomorrow. Money is coming into the district from corporate reformers who see a chance to turn Indianapolis into another all-charter district, like New Orleans. They apparently don’t realize that most of the charter schools in New Orleans have been rated D or F by the charter-friendly State Education Department. Or that of 68 school districts in Louisiana, the Recovery School District in New Orleans is ranked #65. This is no model for Indianapolis or any other city.


The Indianapolis Public School Board election is one of the most hotly contested races in Indiana. A great deal of money has been injected into this election by reformers who support the further expansion of charters and vouchers in IPS. I urge my Indianapolis friends to support the following 3 candidates, who are currently members of the IPS Board.
Annie Roof is the current IPS Board President. She is an IPS graduate, a parent, and an IPS advocate. She has initiated community engagement designed to reach more constituents. She has worked diligently to make sure there is a great school for every student. She was part of a national search team to bring new leadership to IPS in the hiring of Dr. Lewis Ferebee. She has championed competitive pay and benefits for IPS teachers. Annie has ushered in a new era of transparency about the IPS budget and agenda items. She has advocated for increased autonomy at the school level where parents and community members and principals work together.


Samantha Adair White and Dr. Michale Brown are both incumbents and have both helped to bring the IPS Board and district a long way toward transparency and responsiveness to parents and community in the past 4 years (including the hiring of a new Superintendent Dr. Lewis Ferebee). Without their election, Annie Roof’s voice for public education will be lost especially since their opponents have been endorsed and funded by Stand for the Children and the Chamber of Commerce. If their opponents are elected, corporate reform candidates will control the majority of the Board and further privatizations would proceed very rapidly after the election, and Indianapolis will become another New Orleans or Chicago or Philadelphia, all cities where public education is under threat by privatizers.


Vote for your public schools tomorrow.

My, how time flies. It seems like only yesterday—actually it was early 2013– that Oprah began filming “the dramatic transformation of John McDonough High School in New Orleans for a film called “Blackboard Wars.” The star of the show was charter entrepreneur Steve Barr, who had founded the Green Dot charter chain in Los Angeles to national acclaim, then moved on to found a new chain called “Future is Now.” FIN was going to work its miracle on John McDonogh and Oprah was going to be there to capture it on film.

This was printed in The Advocate in January 2013:

“NEW ORLEANS — The students of John McDonogh High School will be at the center of a documentary series scheduled to air in March on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

In a news release sent by the network on Saturday, “Blackboard Wars” is described as telling the story of “the dramatic transformation of New Orleans’ John McDonogh High School, where more than half of its students fail to graduate.”

The series was filmed over the fall at the school, which has a reputation of struggling academics and violence, particularly after the gaining national media attention when a student was fatally shot in the school’s crowded gymnasium in 2003.

Six hour-long episodes have been filmed thus far.

Last summer, Steve Barr, leader of the charter operator Future is Now, took over the school, which was still failing after six years of being run directly by the Recovery School District.

Barr is known for his aggressive takeovers of schools in Los Angeles and for working closely with teachers’ unions, an unusual approach for a charter operator.

With “unprecedented access,” the news release describes following the adult stars of the show, “education maverick Steve Barr and no-nonsense principal Dr. Marvin Thompson as they embark together on an unpredictable mission to reinvent and revive the struggling school.”

Thompson, who was hired by Barr as a co-principal, previously worked as the superintendent of schools in Roanoke, Va., and then as president of an education consulting company. Barr also traveled around the country to recruit talented teachers.

At a panel discussion held Saturday in California, Thompson, Barr and the show’s producer, Eddie Barbini, addressed questions about distrust from the community, privacy, the use of the word “war” in the title and their educational philosophies.

Asked if he felt the school’s outcome was successful, Barr described his first visit to the school last year, when it was set to close, according to a transcript of the panel discussion.

He said of 261 students enrolled, it was rare to see more than 60 in attendance on any given day.

Currently, he said the school has 409 students and an attendance rate of approximately 80 percent.

One audience member at the panel discussion asked Thompson how, as principal, he could change the attitudes of students who didn’t want to learn.

“It’s not failure or inability to learn,” Thompson said. “It’s the desire to learn and someone to push them. Most of us in this room had someone to push us. … These young people don’t have that. So we have to meet them at their most fundamental level, which is their most basic self-esteem need, which is love first.”

The miracle is already captured on film. The secret is out: No one was pushing those kids until FIN arrived.

Except the miracle didn’t happen.

In January, 2014, the news got out that McDonough was closing. Steve Barr said it was closing for renovations, and he didn’t want to disrupt “the culture.” Louisiana blogger Crazy Crawfish pointed out that enrollments were falling, test scores were abysmal, and costs were astronomical for the school. Some “culture.”

At a board meeting of the charter last spring, Steve Barr said there were too many high school seats in the Recovery School District, and McDonough was closing simply because of supply-and-demand.

“As John McDonogh High’s leaders begin the process of closing the New Orleans school, charter chief Steve Barr took the opportunity at a no-quorum board meeting Tuesday to give his explanation of what went wrong. He said the problem boiled down to supply and demand.

State Education Superintendent John White told him that New Orleans public high schools had 125 seats for every 100 students, Barr said. “It’s not management. It’s not we don’t know what we’re doing. You can’t run a high school with 300 kids.”

John McDonogh had 311 students as of Oct. 1, 2013, down from 389 the year before.

The state Recovery School District decided to close the historic New Orleans building for renovations, and Barr’s Future Is Now charter group will not be in charge when “John Mac” reopens. The school has posted dismal test scores in its first two years of a failed turnaround and was called “the most dangerous school in America” in an Oprah television network miniseries.

Tuesday was the charter board’s first meeting since the closure was announced. Two board members attended — John Hope and Charles Fenet — and no members of the public.”

So, no dramatic transformation, no turnaround. Steve Barr returned to California to become leader of the pro-charter Democrats for Education Reform.

Mercedes Schneider explains what happened next:

“McDonogh closed in June 2014. As a part of washing its hands of New Orleans, Barr’s ironically-named Future Is Now (FIN) left behind equipment that the Recovery School District (RSD) (another ironic name) is auctioning off in the aftermath of the FIN-RSD divorce.

“On October 11, 2014, RSD auctioned off laptops that still had student information on them, including student social security numbers.”

More broken promises. More charter churn. Will Oprah return to New Orleans to report on the failure of FIN? To write FINIS to FIN? Don’t count on it.


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