The first thing to be said about Kristen Buras’ new book is that the publisher overpriced the book ($125). As the author, she had nothing to do with that poor decision. This is a book that should be widely read, but at that price, it won’t be. There will eventually be a softcover edition, but probably not for a year. Urge your library to buy it, or get together a group of friends to pool the cost. Or contact the author directly, and she will send you a coupon that gives you a 20% discount (email@example.com).
Although it has its share of academic jargon, it is a major contribution to the literature about post-Katrina New Orleans that directly challenges what you have seen on PBS or heard on NPR or read in the mainstream media. Buras has written her narrative from the grassroots, not from the top. She has spent countless hours interviewing students, parents, teachers, and reformers. She has read all the relevant documents. This is the other side of the story. It is important, and you should read it.
In 2010, I went to New Orleans at the invitation of my cyber-friend Lance Hill, who was running the Southern Institute for Education and Research. Lance arranged for me to speak at Dillard University, a historically black institution in New Orleans, and he invited some of the city’s leading (displaced) educators. There were advocates for the charter reforms in the audience, and they spoke up.
But most of the audience seemed to be angry teachers and administrators who had been fired, and angry parents whose neighborhood school had been taken over by a charter. What I remember most vividly from that evening, aside from meeting the direct descendants of Plessy and Ferguson, who now work together on behalf of racial and civic amity, was a woman in the audience who stood up and said, “After Katrina, first they stole our democracy, then they stole our schools.”
I understood that she was unhappy about the new regime, but I understood it even better after I read Kristen L. Buras’ Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space (Routledge). It is just published. As i said at the outset, the publisher priced it out of the reach of most people who want to read it. What a strange judgment at a time when so many cities are closing down their public schools and handing their children over to charter operators because they want to be “another New Orleans.” If there is one lesson in Buras’ book, it is this: Do not copy New Orleans.
Buras, now a professor of educational policy at Georgia State University, spent ten years researching this book. She describes fully the policy terrain: the Bush administration’s desire to turn Katrina-devastated New Orleans into a free enterprise zone. The support of New Orleans’ white-dominated business community and of the leadership of Tulane University, for privatization of the schools. Privatization also was encouraged by the Aspen Institute, whose chairman Walter Isaacson (former editor in chief of TIME) was simultaneously chairman of the board of Teach for America. A swarm of market-oriented “reformers” saw a chance to turn New Orleans into a model for the nation. They had no trouble getting tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, from the federal government and foundations to create the enterprise zone of independently operated charter schools they wanted.
Obstacles were quickly swept away. Some 7,500 veteran teachers, three-quarters of whom were African-American, the backbone of the African-American middle class in New Orleans, were abruptly fired without cause, making room for a new staff of inexperienced young TFA recruits. Public schools were soon eliminated, even those that were beloved in their communities, some with fabled histories and vibrant ties to the neighborhood.
Buras relates the troubled history of New Orleans, with its background of white supremacy and the disempowerment of African Americans, whether enslaved or free. She recoils at the accusation that black teachers were somehow responsible for the poor condition and poor academic results of the public schools of New Orleans before Katrina. She documents that those in power in the state systematically underfunded the schools until the charters came; then the money spigot opened.
Reviewing this history, and especially the years since the destruction caused by Katrina in 2005, Buras reaches some strong judgments about what happened to New Orleans that ties past to present.
When the new power elites were debating the best way to manage the schools, what became clear was that they distrusted local school boards as “politicized and ineffective,” and preferred either state control, mayoral control or appointed leadership. Behind their models was the Reconstruction-era assumption that “African Americans have no capacity for self-government.”
“Whether in terms of how [charter] boards are constituted or in terms of how student or familial challenges are addressed, the charter school movement in New Orleans is closely bound to the protection of whiteness as property, as the clearest beneficiaries are upper-class white (and a few black) entrepreneurs who seek to capitalize on public assets for their own advancement while dispossessing the very communities the schools are supposed to serve.”
Buras tells the counter-stories of community-supported public schools that resisted the charterization process. One chapter is devoted to Frrederick Douglass High School, the heart of the Bywater neighborhood in the city’s Upper 9th Ward. It opened in 1913 as an all-white school named for a Confederate general who was Reconstruction governor of Louisiana after the Civil War. With desegregation in the late 1960s, white flight commenced, and it eventually became an all-black school. Not until the 1990s was it renamed for abolitionist Frederick Douglass. As Buras shows, the local African American community tried to save the school, which was important to the neighborhood, but it was eventually handed over to KIPP.
Buras points out that most of the charter schools did not hire veteran teachers, and none has a union. They prefer to rely on the fresh recruits, “most of them white and from outside the community.” After Katrina, she writes, state officials and education entrepreneurs shifted the blame for poor academic results onto the city’s veteran teachers. She quotes Chas Roemer, currently the chair of the state education board, as saying “Charter schools are now a threat to the jobs program called public education.” (Roemer’s sister heads the state’s charter school association.) Buras concludes that his remark echoes the old racist view that African Americans are shiftless and lazy and dependent on state welfare. She counters that teachers in New Orleans before Katrina contended with “racism and a history of state neglect of black public schools.” Several teachers told her of the unfit conditions of the schools in which they taught. They did not have access to the bounty that arrived in the city for charter schools.
Beneath the chatter about a New Orleans “miracle,” Buras sees the unfolding of a narrative in which whites once again gain power to control the children of African American families and take possession of schools that once belonged to the black community and reflected their culture and their aspirations.
“Knowingly or unknowingly,” she writes, inexperienced white recruits with TFA undermine the best interests of black working-class students and veteran teachers to leverage a more financially stable and promising future for themselves.” Buras is especially scornful of TFA, which she holds culpable for treating its recruits as “human capital,” while helping to dismantle democratic institutions and take the place of unjustly fired black teachers.
In the end, she offers up her book as a warning to urban districts like Philadelphia, Newark, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, and others that New Orleans is not a model for anyone to follow. The entrepreneurs grow fat while families and children lose schools that once were the heart of their community. Schools are not just a place to produce test scores (and the evidence from the New Orleans-based “Research on Reforms” shows that New Orleans’ Recovery School District is one of the state’s lowest performing districts). Schools have civic functions as well. They are, or should be, democratic institutions, serving the needs of the local community and responsive to its goals. Schooling is not something done to children, but a process in which children learn about the world, develop their talents, and become independent, self-directed individuals and citizens.