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Three scholars have recently published a very informative book about the history of education in New Orleans. The authors tell this story by scrutinizing one very important elementary school in the city, the one that was first to be desegregated with one black student in 1960. The book is titled William Frantz Public School: A Story of Race, Resistance, Resiliency, and Recovery in New Orleans (Peter Lang). The authors are Connie L. Schaffer, Meg White, and Martha Graham Viator.

This is the school that enrolled 6-year-old Ruby Bridges in November 1960. Her entry to the school each day, a tiny little girl accompanied by federal agents, was met with howling, angry white parents. Her admission to an all-white school in New Orleans was a landmark in the fight to implement the Brown v. Board decision of 1954. It was immortalized by Norman Rockwell in a famous painting called The Problem We All Live With.

The authors set the stage for their history by pointing out that the Reconstruction-era constitution of Louisiana forbade racially segregated schools. In the early 1870s, about one-third of the public schools in New Orleans were racially integrated. Some schools had racially integrated teaching staffs. School board members were both white and black. When Reconstruction ended, rigid racial segregation and white supremacy were restored.

The William Frantz Public School opened in 1938 as a school for white children. It occupied almost a full city block.It was one of the few schools built during the Depression. It was built to accommodate 570 children. The authors demonstrate the vast inequality between white schools and black schools. Not far away was a school for black children of elementary age. Not only were black schools overcrowded, but black neighborhoods had problems with poorly maintained sewers, streets, sidewalks, gas and water lines, and structurally unsound buildings. Black schools were dilapidated, students shared desks, and class sizes were often in excess of 60 children to one teacher. Black students had fewer instructional hours than white students, due to overcrowding. White teachers were paid more than black teachers.

Black citizens of New Orleans were outraged by these conditions but they were politically powerless. The white power structure did not care about the education of black children.

Then came the Brown decision of 1954, which declared the policy of “separate but equal” to be unjust. The federal courts moved slowly to implement desegregation, but eventually they began to enforce it. The federal district judge who took charge of desegregation in New Orleans was J. Shelley Wright, a graduate of the city’s white schools. He determined to implement the Brown decision, despite the opposition of the Governor, the Legislature, the Mayor, and prominent white citizens of the city, as well as White Citizens Councils.

In 1958, the Louisiana legislature passed several measures to weaken desegregation efforts including laws allowing the governor to close any school that desegregated, providing state funds to any students seeking to leave the traditional public schools, and granting the state sweeping power to control all schools.

Their well-written history brings the reader to the present, to the all-charter model that privatizers hold up as an exemplar for every urban district troubled by low test scores and white flight.

The section of the book that I found most interesting was their detailed account of the white reaction to the prospect of school integration, despite the fact that the black students who applied to attend white schools were carefully screened for their academic potential and their behavior. Ruby Bridges was the one and only student chosen to start desegregation. Crowds gathered every morning to spit and scream. They harassed not only Ruby, with her federal protection, but any white student who dared to enter the school. Their blockade eventually forced whites to abandon the William Franz Public School. A few persisted, but little Ruby never met them. She was assigned to a classroom with no other students and one teacher.

The whites who tried to stay in the school were subject to threats of violence. Some lost their jobs, as did Ruby’s father. They feared for their lives. The hatred for blacks by whites was explosive. The portrayal of malignant racism is searing.

A relatively small number of whites tried to calm the situation. One such group was called Save Our Schools. They reached out to the white parents of the school, trying to bring peace and reconciliation.

In perhaps the most disturbing response to an SOS mailing, a WFPS parent who had received a letter from SOS returned the letter smeared with feces. A handwritten comment on the letter stated the parent would rather have ignorant children then to send them to a “nigger school.”

The mob won. By the middle of the school year, fewer than 10 white students remained in the school, and they too needed protection. By 1993, not one white student attended the school.

As the tumult continued after Ruby’s admission, prominent whites funded private schools so that white students could escape the specter of desegregation. The Legislature passed laws to support the resistance to desegregation and to give vouchers to whites fleeing the public schools and to underwrite the private academies where racist white students enrolled.

When the battle over desegregation began, New Orleans schools enrolled a white majority. Racism led to white flight, and before long the school district was overwhelmingly black, as was the city.

The authors detail the problems of the district. Not only was it segregated and underfunded, but its leadership was unstable. The management was frequently incompetent and corrupt. Its accounting department was a mess. So was Human Resources. Teachers were not paid on time. The management was woeful. The state wanted to take control of the district before Hurricane Katrina. Three months before the disastrous hurricane, the state leaned on the district to hire a corporate restructuring firm at a cost of $16.8 million.

In June, the Louisiana Department of Education and the Orleans Parish School Board signed an agreement relinquishing the management of the district’s multi-million dollar operating budget to the state. As a result, the district entered into negotiations with a New York turnaround management corporation, Alvarez and Marsal, to oversee its finances. In the contract, the board not only surrendered financial control, it also granted the firm authority to hire and fire employees.

Alvarez & Marsal put one of its senior partners, Bill Roberti, in charge of the district. Before joining the management consultants, Roberti had run the clothing store Brooks Brothers. A&M had previously received $5 million for a year of controlling the St. Louis school district, which was not “turned around,” and collected $15 million for reorganizing New York City’s school bus routes, with poor results (some children were stranded for long periods of time, waiting for buses on the coldest day of the year).


Before the hurricane, the state created the Recovery School District (in 2003) to take control of failing schools. In 2004, it passed Act 9, which allowed the state to take over schools with an academic score of 60 or less and hand them over to charter operators. After the hurricane, the Legislature passed Act 35, which changed the criteria for takeover and paved the way for the Recovery School District to take charge of most of the city’s public schools. Parents got “choice,” but the new charter schools created their own admissions policies, and most did the choosing.

Prior to Act 35, schools with School Performance Scores below 60 were considered to be in academic crisis. Act 35 raised the threshold score to 87.5, virtually ensuring every school in Orleans Parish would be deemed in academic crisis, and therefore, eligible for takeover by the Recovery District…Act 35 achieved what Governor Davis, Leander Perez, and segregationists failed to do in 1960. Act 35, for all intents and purposes, allowed the State of Louisiana to seize control of the Orleans Parish school district…The takeover of the failing schools within Orleans Parish made the Recovery District the largest school district in the State of Louisiana. Had the threshold for the School Performance Score not been raised in Act 35, the Recovery District would have taken over only 13 schools and had a much reduced presence and influence in public education in New Orleans.

After the hurricane, district officials and Alvarez & Marsal issued a diktat permanently terminating the jobs and benefits of more than 7,500 teachers and other staff.

Sixteen years since Hurricane Katrina and the privatization of public schools in New Orleans, the debate about the consequences continues, as it surely will for many more years.

For those interested in New Orleans, I recommend this book, along with Raynard Sanders’ The Coup d’Etat of the New Orleans Public Schools: Money, Power, and the Illegal Takeover of a Public School System, Kristen Buras’ Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance. For a favorable view of the charter takeover, read Douglas Harris’s Charter School City: What the End of Traditional Public Schools in New Orleans Means for American Education.



I recently interviewed Raynard Sanders, a veteran educator in New Orleans, about his new book The Coup D’etat of the New Orleans Public Schools: Money, Power, and the Illegal of a Public School System.

You can watch it here.

He spoke at length about the blatant racism involved in the takeover and privatization of the city’s public schools. The state leaders (white) had been eager to find a reason to seize control of the district, which had a majority black school board. Ray says that the state commissioner cooked up a tale about missing millions of federal dollars. This same commissioner obtained an audit that showed there were no missing millions, but he continued to keep the story alive to undermine confidence in the elected school board. When the hurricane devastated the city, it was the perfect excuse for the white elite in the city and the state to grab control of the schools, their budget and their personnel. The hurricane became a rationale for firing the mostly African American staff, which was the backbone of the city’s black middle class, and replacing them with young white Teach for America recruits. It is a sobering interview.

Mercedes Schneider is a native of Louisiana and she has lived through its recent history. She understands the state and city’s long, deeply ingrained racism. In this post, where she reviews Douglas Harris’s recent book Charter School City, she points out that he is oblivious to that history and context. He describes the state takeover (by affluent white elites) of the district as “reform.” He is focused on test scores and other data. She refuses to connect today’s disempowerment of the city’s black community from the long history of white power, exercised by those who see no need to engage the community in discussions about their children.

It’s an excellent read.

On Wednesday February 10, I will host a Zoom discussion with Raynard Sanders about his new book, The Coup D’état of the New Orleans Public Schools: Money, Power, and the Illegal Takeover of a Public School System.

Sanders was the principal of a public school in New Orleans before the takeover of the district in 2005.

As you might guess from the title of his book, he considers the takeover to be illegal. It’s “results,” he contends are disastrous for the children of the district.

Listen in to hear the other side of the story.

Open the link and register to join the Zoom.

You may recall the iconic painting of little Ruby Bridges, a first-grader, who was the first African American student to enroll in a previously all-white segregated school in New Orleans. If you don’t, be sure to read this article, which tells what happened to the William Franz Public School.

Three scholars–Connie L. Schaffer, Martha Graham Viator, and Meg White–tell the story. The three are also the co-authors of a book titled: William Frantz Public School: A Story of Race, Resistance, Resilience, and Recovery in New Orleans, which I am reading now and expect to review.

They write:

If that building’s walls could talk, they certainly would tell the well-known story of its desegregation. But those same walls could tell another story, too. That story is about continued racism as well as efforts to dismantle and privatize public education in America over the past six decades.

When little Ruby Bridges enrolled in November 1960, she was escorted by four federal marshalls. Crowds of angry whites jeered day after day. Parents of the white children in the school withdrew their children and sent them mostly to private segregated schools.

Racism drove many white families from the neighborhoods near the school and other areas of New Orleans to abandon the city. White enrollment steadily declined throughout New Orleans’ public schools, dropping more than 50% between 1960 and 1980.

By 2005, only 3% of the students enrolled in the city’s public schools were white – far below average for midsize American cities.

Racially segregated, underfunded William Frantz Public School suffered through the imposition of standards and accountability in the 1990s, which did nothing to help the school, but did result in its being labeled a “failing” school. By 2005, the school board voted to close it.

In 2013, the school reopened as Akili Academy, a charter school directed by a private corporation. The authors wonder whether the public school system that Ruby Bridges dared to desegregate, overseen by an elected board, is “a relic of the past.”

Mercedes Schneider reviewed Douglas Harris’s book Charter City in Commonweal. As a teacher in Louisiana and a close observer of the politics of education, Schneider is well positioned to assess the claims on behalf of the all-charter NewOrleans district. Harris is a respected economist who heads the Education Research Alliance at TulaneUniversity, which received a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to study school choice.

Schneider writes about the determination of whites in Louisiana to block integration of the public schools after the Brown decision. When the courts struck down vouchers, “anti-Black sentiment never waned, and decades of white flight from New Orleans followed. Meanwhile, the state diligently set about eliminating economic advancement opportunities for the remaining Black population, limiting employment and housing options while cutting back drastically on education. Soon enough, the city was bereft of a Black middle class and the tax base needed to fund basic services, including public schools. And so, as one might logically expect, the public education situation in New Orleans became dire.“ She wondered whether Harris would acknowledge this history but he did not.

Harris, the director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans and a professor of economics at Tulane University, focuses instead on data—specifically, on test scores and graduation rates in the years prior to the devastating 2005 storm and in the years that followed, from 2006 to 2015. By his accounting, the numbers went up post-Katrina, which he credits to intervention by the state in the form of charter-school initiatives. Now, data can be compelling, and reformers will often point to metrics like improved test scores to make the case for charter schools. But when I look at the data Harris cites, I think of the audit that’s being conducted at the request of the New Orleans superintendent of schools because of missing test scores and irregularities in high-school transcripts and class credits. I think of the numerous lawsuits calling for the Louisiana Department of Education—which was then run by a champion of the charter reform efforts in New Orleans—to release suspect testing data for independent review. So I can’t say I have confidence in the integrity of the data that Harris has analyzed. 

But that is not my principal concern. What’s more troubling is the narrative Harris spins out about the state takeover itself. That effort was led by Leslie Jacobs, former state school-board member turned businesswoman, who with a handful of other affluent whites form the core of what Harris calls the “reform community.” It was Jacobs who instigated things by drafting legislation that classified most New Orleans schools as “failing.” From there, the reform community—working out of office space provided by Tulane University—moved to sideline the predominantly Black community of New Orleans in its planning. Even as the city’s economy was still reeling from Katrina, the group engineered the mass firing of Orleans Parish School Board teachers. Harris describes the firing as an unfortunate necessity in achieving “reform”—that is, replacing traditional board-led public schools with a portfolio of independently operated charters. But the decision was also motivated by the inconvenient fact that the teachers were unionized, and thus a potential force of resistance. 

She laments the fact that schools have been severed from their communities. Despite the celebration of “choice,” the one choice unavailable to parents is a neighborhood school. When local groups of Black parents have asked if they can apply for a charter, they find that they cannot. Community engagement is important, she says, but it is of no consequence in New Orleans.

Schneider says that the Black citizens of New Orleans have been disenfranchised for decades. The charter takeover of their city’s schools is yet another expression of disrespect for their communities.


The Education Research Alliance of New Orleans just released a study of why some charter teachers in the nation’s only all-charter district want to join a union. Their reasons sound very much like the reasons that teachers in public schools want a union. No one told them that the Waltons, charter lobbyists, and other supporters of the charter movement don’t like unions. Immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the teachers’ union was eliminated, and all the teachers were fired. Getting rid of the union and removing teacher voice was part of the plan.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – The Education Research Alliance for New Orleans has released a study on teacher unions in charter schools in New Orleans and Detroit. Drawing on detailed interviews with 21 teachers, the report offers insight what motivates teachers in charter schools to form a union and what barriers may stand in their way.

This report gives readers the rare opportunity to hear teachers’ perspectives on the process of organizing in charter schools. All the teachers interviewed came from schools where there was an attempt, successful or unsuccessful, to form a union.

“Understanding the role of unions is particularly important now, when schools are both facing the COVID pandemic and in a time when there are calls to address racism in our institutions,” said Huriya Jabbar, lead author of the report. “Schools need to listen to teachers and develop a shared understanding about the best way forward in these difficult times. In some schools, unions play a big role in those conversations.”

Researchers Huriya Jabbar (University of Texas at Austin), Jesse Chanin (Tulane University), Jamie Haynes (University of Texas at Austin), and Sara Slaughter (Tulane University) uncovered the following insights about union organizing in charter schools:

The most common motivation for organizing was improving teacher retention and job security. Lack of pay transparency and equity (e.g. men and women being paid unequally), unsustainable workloads, teacher burnout, and arbitrary firings were also major underlying concerns.

Teachers also often brought up the desire to advocate for their students, hoping to ensure that school policies were culturally responsive and that vulnerable students were supported.

Teachers who were in favor of unionization efforts reported shock at the severity of school administrators’ responses. Many alleged that administrators fired teachers who attempted to unionize or accused them of destroying the school “family.”

High teacher turnover and fear of being fired were major challenges that stymied attempts at union organizing.
There were notable differences between Detroit, where many charters are for-profit, and New Orleans, where they are all non-profit. Detroit teachers saw low salary as a major issue and complained that they were lacking basic resources like textbooks. Teachers in New Orleans did not emphasize salary levels as a major issue but were concerned about pay transparency.

“As more charter schools open in the U.S., it is becoming increasingly important to understand the needs and motivations of teachers who choose to work in these schools,” said co-author Sara Slaughter, Associate Director at the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

Read the study here.

The National Education Policy Center released a report recently by Kristen Buras, one of my favorite scholar-writers. It focuses on dramatic racial disparities in New Orleans as the COVID-19 pandemic spread in the city. Her earlier book about the privatization of the public schools of New Orleans is powerful and, aside from my review, did not get the attention it deserved. It is titled Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance.

NEPC announces the new report by Buras:

BOULDER, CO (July 28, 2020) – To inspire support for public health directives, many warn COVID-19 does not discriminate—everyone’s susceptible. The reality is more complicated. We are not “all in this together.” Racism ensures this, and New Orleans’ experience following Hurricane Katrina illustrates one way that racial inequities play out in times of crisis.

In a report released by the National Education Policy Center, “From Katrina To Covid-19: How Disaster, Federal Neglect, and the Market Compound Racial Inequities,” professor Kristen Buras of Georgia State University draws on history, storytelling, and political analysis to describe how the government neglect that disproportionately affected communities of color during Katrina is again evident during the COVID-19 crisis, with similar devastating results.

On August 29, 2005, Katrina struck New Orleans with disastrous effects. Yet while Katrina is regarded as one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, Buras argues that government neglect and market-driven public policy generated the worst effects, especially for communities of color. Despite forecasts that Katrina could kill tens of thousands, federal, state, and local governments did little to protect those in geographically vulnerable neighborhoods or evacuate those without cars. In New Orleans, African Americans were left to drown in floodwaters and dehydrate on rooftops, disproportionately suffering an array of harms.

But the harms did not end there. As floodwaters receded, policies aimed at privatizing assets in African American neighborhoods, including public schools, were enacted, compounding racial inequities wrought by a history of white supremacy.

Almost 15 years later, on January 20, 2020, the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was detected. Despite warnings that a pandemic could wreak physical and economic havoc, the federal government failed to take preventative action.

As a result, communities of color are again suffering disproportionately, with African Americans and other racially marginalized groups overrepresented among those who have died from the virus. Yet states have been slow to produce racially disaggregated data or provide racially targeted healthcare and other support. Instead of coordinating a federal response to the crisis and corresponding disparities, policymakers have advocated free market solutions, leaving states to compete for lifesaving medical supplies. The CARES Act, ostensibly passed to assist vulnerable communities, has been used to consolidate the wealth of corporate elites.

Katrina and COVID-19 have been framed as “natural” disasters—one ecological and the other biological—but Buras contends that government inaction and racism have been most responsible for the disproportionate harms experienced by communities of color. With COVID-19, African Americans and other marginalized communities risk infection as low-paid workers, struggle to access food and healthcare, worry about rent and eviction, confront a digital divide amid shuttered schools, and die at higher rates.

The experience of Katrina, then, has policy implications for the current moment, including concerns over profiteering and who will have a voice in rebuilding communities disproportionately affected by economic shutdowns and school closures.
Professor Buras ends her report with race-conscious, equity-focused policy recommendations spanning health, education, housing, labor, and democratic governance. These are necessary, she concludes, to realize an equitable future and hold accountable those whose negligence has inflicted and compounded harm for communities facing the crisis of not only COVID-19, but racism.
In sum, Professor Buras’ report critically analyzes the following:

*Reliving Katrina
*The Effects of Disaster Are Not Natural: Federal Neglect Kills—And Kills Unequally
*Crisis Reveals Preexisting Inequities and Exposes Tolerance for Racism
*Profiteering and Privatization Dispossess Communities of Color
*The Question of Who Has a Voice in Rebuilding the Economy Is Critical
*Negligence Is Racist and Criminal
*Toward an Equitable Policy Future

Find From Katrina To Covid-19: How Disaster, Federal Neglect, and the Market Compound Racial Inequities, by Kristen L. Buras, at:
http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/katrina-covid

Della Hasselle of the New Orleans Times-Picayune describes how charter schools in New Orleans have collected coronavirus relief funds from money meant for public schools as well as federal funds meant for small private businesses. Most received money from the Payroll Protection Program, up to $5.1 million for a single school, even though they have suffered no loss of revenues.


More than two-thirds of New Orleans’ charter school organizations have applied for federal loans through the congressional act to help keep businesses afloat during the coronavirus pandemic, garnering criticism from some groups for tapping into a program that hasn’t been available to traditional public schools.

Dozens of New Orleans schools have applied for Payroll Protection Program loans, aimed at shielding small businesses from closure due to COVID-19, according to interviews and a review of documents from over 40 boards operating schools in New Orleans.

At least a third of the charters had received loans, with officials from those organizations saying they got anywhere from about $97,000 to more than $5.1 million in funds, based on their payroll.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the city of New Orleans and created great economic uncertainty for our schools about how we can continue to operate, employ all of our employees, and not dramatically cut services for students, many of whom will return to school with learning gaps and needing additional social and emotional supports,” said Kate Mehok, CEO of Crescent City Schools, which received $3 million.

The money, which comes from a $349 billion stimulus established by the $2 trillion federal CARES Act, can be forgiven if all employees are kept on the payroll for eight weeks and if the money is used for salary, rent, mortgage interest, or utilities, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, which along with the Treasury Department is implementing the program.

Critics had already lambasted charter schools around the country for the applications, accusing the non-profits of abusing their status and double-dipping, and were miffed to learn about the dozens of applications to come out of New Orleans, which this year became the first major American city to have no traditional schools.

Like traditional schools, local charters have already received some CARES Act funding through the Louisiana Department of Education. But unlike the charters, district-run schools weren’t eligible for the extra payroll loans.

The charter organizations each got hundreds of thousands of dollars from the $260 million doled out to districts and charters in late April as part of the Elementary and Secondary School Relief Fund, another part of the CARES Act, mostly for technology and distance learning.

The National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice (REACH), formerly known as the Education Research Alliance, released its first report after having been funded by Betsy DeVos with $10 million to study the effects of choice in schools. REACH used value-added methodology (judging teachers by the test score gains of their students to determine that those who got the highest VAM scores were likeliest to stay. It is safe to assume that these teachers were in the highest-scoring charter schools. On the other hand, the teachers with the lowest scores (no doubt, in the lowest-performing schools) were turning over at a high rate. The study’s conclusion is that (some) charters are keeping their best teachers (those with the highest VAM ratings) but (some) charters are not, which since they don’t get high VAM scores, is not a big deal.

We are excited to announce the release of the first study from the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice (REACH). Naturally, the subject of this study is one that’s considered the most important factor in school success: teachers.

New Orleans is the first all-charter school district in the country. This makes the city the first where schools are held strictly accountable for performance, where many employers in close proximity compete for teachers, and where schools have the ability to respond to these pressures with almost complete autonomy over school personnel. If school reform advocates are right, we would expect these policy changes to produce major change in the teacher labor market. Did this happen?

To answer this question, researchers Nathan Barrett, Deven Carlson, Douglas N. Harris, and Jane Arnold Lincove compared New Orleans to similar neighboring districts from 2010 to 2015, using student test score growth to measure teacher performance. They drew the following conclusions:

Teacher retention is more closely related to teacher performance in New Orleans than in traditional public school districts. Lower performing teachers in New Orleans are 2.5 times more likely to leave their school than high-performing teachers, compared with only 1.9 times in similar neighboring districts.
The stronger link between retention and performance might imply that teacher quality would improve faster in New Orleans than in similar districts. However, this is not the case. The difference in average teacher performance between New Orleans and comparison districts remained essentially unchanged between 2010 and 2015. This is apparently because of the larger share of new teachers in New Orleans, whose lower quality roughly offsets the city’s advantages in retaining higher performing teachers.
The stronger retention-performance link in New Orleans is somewhat related to financial rewards, though not in a way that is likely to increase the overall quality of teaching. We find that higher performing teachers only receive pay increases when they switch schools, which may increase teacher turnover. High-performing teachers do not receive raises for performance when they stay in the same school.
These findings highlight the complexities of policies intended to increase the quality of teaching. Future studies will build on this work by examining how performance-based school closures affect the teacher labor market.

Read the policy brief here or the full technical report here.