New Orleans Schools Still in Eye of Storm

Originally published in the Winter 2011 edition of The Leader

It’s been five years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and redefined “normal” for so many people. Rebuilding the drowned city has been a slow and laborious process, and while progress has been made, one area in particular still is lagging behind: education.

Despite the diligent efforts of administrators and teachers to provide a quality education, the school system has been plagued with problems that contribute to its poor national rankings. Before Katrina, approximately two thirds of students attended schools that were deemed failing by state standards, according to a recent Newsweek article. Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), the district that before Katrina encompassed the majority of New Orleans’ schools, was ranked as one of the worst in the state, and high poverty levels coupled with fractured family life made education an afterthought for most children.

After the storm, many schools were damaged if not completely destroyed, and only a third of New Orleans’ student population returned to the schools in 2006. In an unexpected move, the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) fired without warning more than 7,500 teachers, administrators, custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other school workers immediately after Katrina.

“Each month we had another blow,” said Florida Woods, the executive director of the Professional Association of New Orleans Public Schools, Inc. (PANOPSI). “Our homes were under water, our health insurance was either gone or extremely expensive, and then in November we lost our jobs.” Hurricane Katrina and the BESE’s actions essentially wiped out New Orleans’ education system, but that result did not dismay top education officials.

“I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in January 2010. “That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that we have to do better.”

Secretary Duncan’s statement suggested what many locals already knew, that the education system was inherently broken. However, it did not acknowledge the willingness and desire of the New Orleans community to contribute to the rebuilding of the system to improve the quality of education. Although many educators did not agree with Secretary Duncan’s statement, they did agree with the underlying sentiment that there needed to be fundamental changes.

Paul Vallas’ name may ring a bell for educators familiar with Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Vallas, the CEO of CPS before Arne Duncan and Ron Huberman, had no experience in education before taking the Chicago position. After resigning from his Chicago post in 2001 and unsuccessfully running for governor against Rod Blagojevich in 2002, Vallas headed to Philadelphia, where he spearheaded one of the largest efforts ever to privatize public schools. In 2007, Paul Pastorek, the Louisiana superintendent of education, brought Vallas to New Orleans to serve as the superintendent of RSD.

Vallas’ approach to New Orleans is reminiscent of his time in Philadelphia. His pro-charter ideology and uncompromising closure of schools that don’t meet standards has created a system in which more than half of New Orleans students are in charter schools.

Only time will tell if these charter schools truly are better than public schools. However, with charter schools popping up left and right, one thing can be certain: the education standards among schools vary greatly. And since no set education standards exist for each school, it is virtually impossible to tell which school is better.

An imperfect system

While the New Orleans public school system may have been “a disaster” before Hurricane Katrina, the experimental model that is in place hardly can be considered ideal.

Presently, New Orleans Public Schools (NOPS) is divided into three districts: the OPSB, the Recovery School District (RSD) and a Charter district. The RSD, overseen by the BESE, was created in 2003 to help reform Louisiana’s struggling schools. After its creation, five schools were placed into the RSD. Currently, charter schools outnumber the number of public schools in the city.

In the months after Katrina, state legislators passed a law that allowed the RSD to take over the Louisiana schools that were failing to meet the state education standards, the large majority of those schools were in New Orleans. As a result, the number of schools, both public and charter, in the RSD increased overnight from five to 112.

The RSD is just as it sounds: recovering. An estimated 90 percent of the buildings in the district were labeled in poor condition before the storm, and after the storm approximately 100 buildings were damaged or destroyed. More than 80 percent of students entering the RSD are at minimum one year below their expected grade level, and more that one-fifth of the student population is two or more years older than what is typical for their grade level.

Slowly the RSD has been producing positive results. Test rates have steadily improved, and graduation rates have been increasing. However, many schools continue to fail to meet state standards, and with plans to raise the state education standards in the coming year, many of the schools may be put on the chopping block.

Besides suffering indeterminate fates, schools in New Orleans still are harboring the effects of the storm. Woods said that, among other things, the physical structure of New Orleans’ public schools is a serious problem.

One of the major concerns with the shift to RSD and charter schools is the question of access to schools of students’ choice. “You get all of this money to rebuild schools, and then these schools are built and opened as charter schools,” said Woods.

The fact that OPSB owns all of the public school buildings in conjunction with the state may explain why restored schools are opening as charters.

“When you have millions given to the state, schools should be housed properly, not in crumbling units,” Woods said.

“You drive by these schools now, and some of them are still vacant. My own building was demolished.”

The charter school frenzy that seems to be sweeping the nation was instigated in New Orleans about five years ago, right after Katrina. Like the RSD, the OPSB is a mix of charter and public schools. There are 12 charter schools and four OPSB district-managed schools. Additionally, the BESE oversees two independent charter schools.

Enrollment in RSD and OPSB schools is as convoluted as the districts themselves. While all of the schools require an application, each has different qualifications. The OPSB schools do not use a lottery to choose applicants. Instead, they base their decisions on grades, residential addresses and other criteria. The RSD schools use a lottery format to choose applicants, and applicants who are not chosen are funneled to the last pick of the RSD schools.

Woods said that labeling New Orleans charter schools as better than regular public schools is inaccurate.

“Charter schools will continue to do well if they keep picking and choosing the kids they want,” Woods said. “Who’s to say those children are any better than other children?”

The uneven distribution of students and wealthy families among the OPSB and RSD results in the creation of schools that either are greatly surpassing state standards or greatly lagging behind. If OPSB charter schools continue to be compared with regular RSD public schools, then the argument that charter schools in New Orleans are better than public schools will remain inherently flawed.

A slow path to rebuilding

Contrary to Duncan’s statements, for those fired immediately after Katrina, the education system meltdown was not the best thing that could have happened. After the mass firing, PANOPSI filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit against the BESE. Five years later, that lawsuit still is dragging on.

“Many were fired or forced into early retirement,” Woods said. “At one point, there was a test people had to take to get hired back. This generated feelings of isolation and betrayal among former OPSB employees and contributed to the decrease in
membership of PANOPSI. The overall sentiment in the state was that being a member of a union would have further detrimental effects on your career.”

Coupled with the decrease in membership in PANOPSI was the restructuring of the education system. The processes implemented were not standardized, which generated further feelings of inequity in people who already felt victimized. Woods said that when the schools were restructured as charters, former principals would often be hired on as teachers. There was no reason or order to the hiring process, Woods said.

Before Katrina, unions did not have collective bargaining rights in Louisiana, and the same still holds true for today. Despite the lack of bargaining rights, PANOPSI slowly is starting to revive its member base. Members have committed to reactivating the organization by personally reaching out to others in a one-on-one fashion, and a strategic committee recently was formed with the intent to develop an organized way to increase membership and participation.

The American Federation of School Administrators has reached out to PANOPSI in its time of need and has supported and funded the organization’s lawsuit since its inception. Additionally, in the aftermath of Katrina, AFSA sent PANOPSI members funds to help get them back on their feet, and donated books, uniforms, and a washer and dryer to schools around New Orleans.

On a recent visit to New Orleans, AFSA President Diann Woodard said PANOPSI members have shown sincere dedication in rebuilding their organization.

“We spoke about the need to network with each other and the need to draw strength from one another,” Woodard said. “They reminisced about the family feeling they felt in the old organization and how they wanted to create it again. By the end of the meeting it felt like a real revival.”

Update: Paul Vallas and Paul Pastorek have since announced that they are both leaving Louisiana, and on May 19, it was announced that PANOPSI’s lawsuit will go to court on May 23, 2011.