Last month the Times Picayune published a front page article "Next Mayor Could Shape Schools." The article solicited responses from the major candidates as part of its ongoing coverage of the mayoral campaign. While mayoral candidates regularly cite the central importance of public education, mayors generally take a hands-off approach. At Warren Easton High School, in the only debate that focused on public education, the candidates did not demonstrate informed leadership stance in addressing questions about the proliferation of charter schools as a reform vehicle, or about the state takeover of the public school district, and whether it is serving our students. The future of our children and our city depend on the next mayor pursuing these critical questions.
Pre-Hurricane Katrina, the ills of our public education system was well documented. A two-tiered system with a small cadre of schools (most of which had admission requirements) that provided a quality learning environment; with the remaining cadre of schools (most required to accept any student assigned to them) that provided a poor learning environment for the majority of students.
In rebuilding our school district post-Katrina, all of us had hopes of creating a public education system that would finally produce a quality learning experience for all students. We shared an understanding that a strong educational system promised the greatest promise for improving economic growth and decreasing crime. Equally important, effective reforms would remove the hopelessness that had become a staple in many poor communities across New Orleans.
After more than four years of this experiment in New Orleans, our public schools look much like they did pre-Hurricane Katrina. After creating the largest percentage of charter schools of any city in the country, we still have a few schools doing a wonderful job, with most of our students in schools — both charter and non-charter — that are not achieving or receiving the services they are due by law. Despite media reports, public education in New Orleans is NOT doing better post-Hurricane Katrina.
The mayoral candidates' responses and the debate reflected a lack of awareness about the realities of public education in New Orleans. They largely repeated the rosy picture projected by state education officials and uncritically reported by the mainstream media. Their orientation understandably is fed by the community's shared hope that the change would necessarily be better than the dysfunctional system our children suffered in pre Katrina.
Yet even a cursory look at the landscape clearly shows a continuing state of emergency for our public education system. Our next mayor should be versed in highlights of the present status of public education:
• The state takeover of 107 public schools in New Orleans swept up many successful schools. The legislation, known as Act 35, created a one-time standard for a failing school and ignored the existing take-over policy. Additionally, ACT 35 applied only to New Orleans, not to any other school district in Louisiana. If ACT 35 had used the existing take-over standard, only 13 schools would have been taken over.
• The main standard the state judges success by is LEAP scores. Yet four years into the takeover, 2009 Recovery School District (RSD) LEAP scores still lag far behind the state average LEAP scores; of the 16 New Orleans Recovery District Charter Schools, only 37.5% met their growth targets for 2008-2009, while only 23% of the New Orleans Recovery District non-charter schools met their SPS growth targets for 2008- 2009. Recovery School District schools have received an average per pupil allocation in excess of $15,000 per student in recent years; yet, local school systems that receive less than half that amount have been more successful this past year in improving the performance of low achieving schools.
• The RSD is the only state agency in Louisiana that operates like a private corporation and does not adhere to the Louisiana Sunshine Laws or policies followed by all the other school districts in Louisiana. The RSD does not operate a transparent or open process, nor does it share with the public or receive comments from the public on its hiring practices, budget or contractual obligations. Accountability and transparency are non-existent in RSD and many charter schools.
• The Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Reports from the last three years have cited the RSD with repeated fiscal management problems, including but not limited to: paying employees who were no longer working for the district, failing to exercise adequate internal control over movable property, lacking compliance with state and federal laws and regulations, lacking proper insurance for warehouse contents; and incorrectly charging the federal School Breakfast and Lunch Programs for ineligible students meals.
• Millions of federal dollars were designated for disadvantaged students in open-admissions charter schools, but many of those funds have been distributed to charter schools that do not provide open access, in violation of federal law.
• Louisiana has one of the highest school dropout rates in the country with a high proportion of students leaving school before 9th grade. many of these lost students are in New Orleans.
School reform in New Orleans has re-established and exacerbated the two-tier system that existed previously. The very children that the reform was designed to help have suffered the most and now sit in learning environments that are much worse for them than pre-Katrina. The state of Louisiana has once again separated children by race and class with poor and minority children, by and large, in inadequate school facilities and poor learning environments.
The next mayor has got to get his or her arms around the challenges of public education that students and parents are facing daily. At the debate two weeks ago, the audience asked the candidates questions that were in essence cries for help. These questions from students and parents ranged from overcrowded classrooms to students riding on school buses for up to two hours each way to school. The candidates' lack of knowledge of these issues was obvious as their responses continually supported the "great reform that is going on in New Orleans." Additionally the candidates' whole-hearted endorsement of charters is contrary to best practices and research findings of every major educational research association in the country. There is no study that validates charters as the solution to solving the academic ills of poor and minority students in America. Virtually every study done on charter schools by universities, research groups and the federal government have repeatedly found that charter schools, by and large, do not outperform traditional schools academically.
The next mayor must be absolutely clear: we cannot improve the quality of life in New Orleans if we continue to provide a poor educational environment for most of our children. The result of such a course of action is a large proportion of unemployed and underemployed residents, high crime rates and limited economic growth.
With that, the time has come for our mayor to have a hands-on approach to public education. In describing their vision for the city he or she must set expectations that will yield the kinds of results that will provide a quality education for all students and actively work to see this vision become a reality. Our mayor must lead this community in understanding that education has a dual function of enhancing individuals and strengthening communities. Our mayor must lead this city in breaking the age old standard of Separate and Unequal Schools that has plagued our community for generations.
Given the changes in our public education system post Katrina our new mayor must set expectations that insures quality education for all children. The mayor must not be fooled by the normal annual gains and losses in test scores but by how many students that enter our public schools in kindergarten and graduate and either move to higher education or the workforce.
Though the mayor has no statutory authority, he or she will have a powerful soapbox in calling for immediate changes to a system that is failing most of our children. From this perch, the mayor can:
• Call for the state to return the schools to local governance and control.
• Call for transparency and accountability of every school operator and the Recovery School District.
• Call for an open and transparent process for the financial, hiring and contractual practices of the Recovery School District as required by law just like every school district in the state of Louisiana.
• Call for public input into the operation of all schools charter and non charter.
• Demand that every school serve special needs students as required by state and federal law.
• Call on the district to robustly address the drop out pandemic that threatens our future.
Any candidate willing to do this is worthy of our votes.
Dr. Sanders is co-founder of the Center for Action Research on New Orleans School Reforms, he has over thirty years of experience in teaching, educational administration, and economic and community development. As a principal of a New Orleans high school, he was recognized by the Louisiana State Department of Education for guiding his high school through four consecutive years of improvement on the state graduate exit exam. Visit www.researchonreforms.org.
Photos from www.researchonreforms.org.
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