NOLA News: Revelry vs. Reality
Director Spike Lee was just named a winner of the annual George Polk Awards for his HBO documentary, "When the Levees Broke," the Associated Press says. Appropriate, considering today is Fat Tuesday -- Mardi Gras -- a day associated with New Orleans.
Mary Foster of the Associated Press reports that NOLA's Mardi Gras revelers have traded revelry for reality. Last year's Mardi Gras parades were scaled down, but not this year's. Tracy Smith reports for CBS News:
The celebration has been bigger than last year, with more than 700,000 people coming to the party, which ends at midnight.
A lot of tourists come for the music. And one of the few signs of recovery in the 18 months since Hurricane Katrina is that many musicians have come back home, thanks in large part to a housing program designed to keep and attract them.
Musicians seem to be an exception. About a third of the city's residents plan to leave. Bill Walsh reported for the February 7 Times-Picayune:
Congressional frustration with the pace of Gulf Coast hurricane recovery exploded Tuesday with one lawmaker calling Louisiana's Road Home housing program "a joke" and others berating the Bush administration for limiting public housing. ...
... Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., went so far as to issue an apology to the residents of Louisiana and Mississippi for what he called "a complete failure of the administration here in Washington to respond to that crisis."
Pursuing that theme, the committee hammered away at Roy Bernardi, deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, for plans to demolish four major New Orleans public housing complexes with 3,900 apartments rather than rehabilitate them. ...
... But the level of distrust of the federal agency became clear during a break in the proceedings when New Orleans public housing residents confronted Bernardi across the witness table.
They said HUD was overstating the damage to public housing and that many apartments could be reopened in short order. They also said that $1,100 disaster rental vouchers, which expire Sept. 30, are of limited use in the New Orleans area, where rents have skyrocketed because of limited availability.
"Why are you playing politics with our lives," said Sharon Sears Jasper, a former resident of the St. Bernard housing complex. "Why are you destroying livable homes? Why do you want to make us homeless?"
And then there are the schools. The New Orleans public school system was struggling before Katrina. After, it was devastated.
Less than a month after Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana received a $20.9 million No Child Left Behind grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The catch? The grant was to reopen charter schools, not open enrollment public schools. In addition, the state announced it would establish ten new charter schools.
The result is described by Jan Resseger, The Chicago Defender:
In America public education is supposed to be provided for everybody, but during this past January in New Orleans, 300 children languished out of school on a waiting list because the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD) had neither buildings nor teachers to serve them.
Only when the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and local attorney Tracie Washington filed separate lawsuits on February 1, under federal law and Louisiana's compulsory attendance act, did the RSD pledge to open two additional schools for the beginning of second semester, February 5.
It is now clear that a humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of a hurricane is a poor time to experiment with school governance.
Aided by a $20.9 million federal charter school grant that came on September 30, 2005, less than one month after the storm, the Louisiana Legislature used Hurricane Katrina as an excuse for state takeover and a massive charter school experiment in New Orleans.
Today, over half of New Orleans's 54 public schools are charter schools. From a recent editorial in The Harbus, an Harvard University independent student publication (emphasis added):
New Orleans currently has the highest percentage of charter schools of any urban school district in the country. With over half of its 54 public schools operating as charter schools, New Orleans has become a focal point of the education reform movement in the United States. If the Crescent City can emerge from Katrina with a more effective school system than it had prior to the storm, two things will happen. On the micro level, the children of the city will benefit tremendously. On the macro level, proponents of charter schools will have the large-scale example they need to push increased reform in other districts around the country.
Back to Jan Resseger:
Since the hurricane, parents have been required to apply to a fragmented system: a few selective admissions public schools left to be operated by the New Orleans School Board, 31 independent charter schools, and 18 schools opened by the RSD itself only when too few potential operators filed applications to launch charter schools. While Robin Jarvis, the RSD superintendent, blames today's dysfunction on the condition of the public schools pre-Katrina, the real problem is that Louisiana and the RSD never planned to manage school operations.
That the RSD was unprepared to run a school system was clear in July 2006, when its ten person staff included a public relations liaison but no special education coordinator. After Louisiana laid off and then fired all 4,500 of New Orleans' teachers who had been working in classrooms the day before Katrina struck, the RSD began advertising for 500 teachers only in late July 2006, after those best qualified had already taken jobs in charter schools or outside New Orleans. A shortage of teachers has plagued the RSD since last September. Today 33 percent of teachers hired by the RSD are uncertified.
So much for the education reform movement. The New Orleans "reformers" seem to be following the Iraq model -- lay off everybody with job experience and knowledge and replace them with ideologues and hacks.
Other school districts across the Gulf Coast have scrambled successfully to welcome children back to the schools they attended pre-Katrina. A better plan for New Orleans would have been to keep one coherent system, retain New Orleans' pre-Katrina teachers, open schools in all neighborhoods, and plan for slightly more schools than required for children immediately expected to return. The only side effect would have been smaller classes in under-enrolled schools until children moved back to fill the seats.
Now, after Louisiana granted charters and selective admissions schools the right to cap class sizes, the RSD is in the position of trying to pressure those "protected" schools to accept more children to reduce appalling over-crowding in RSD schools. Meanwhile the RSD has lacked the capacity to get other rotting buildings repaired.
Becky Bohrer of the Associated Press reported this month that the RSD is trying to attract new teachers by appealing to their sense of adventure:
Wanted: Idealistic teachers looking for a Peace Corps-style adventure in a city in distress.
Some of New Orleans' most desperate, run-down schools are beset with a severe shortage of teachers, and they are struggling mightily to attract candidates by appealing to their sense of adventure and desire to make a difference. Education officials are even offering to help new teachers find housing. ...
... After the storm, some of the worst of the worst public schools were put under state control, and those are the ones finding it particularly hard to attract teachers. The 19 schools in the state-run Recovery School District have 8,580 students and about 540 teachers, or about 50 fewer than they need -- a shortage so severe that about 300 students who want to enroll have been put on a waiting list. ...
...At Rabouin High, which has about 600 students, the halls echo with the shouts of teenagers who should be in class. Many have to share textbooks, if they have them at all. Doors lack knobs or, in the case of a girls' bathroom, don't close completely. Students have to pass through a metal detector to get inside, and guards patrol the halls.
About half of Rabouin's 34 teachers are first-year educators or new to Louisiana.
Earlier this month the American Federation of Teachers called for a protest.
"Where will these children receive an education?" asked Ed McElroy, president of the 1.3-million-member AFT, a national affiliate of NYSUT. McElroy was responding to reports in the New Orleans Times-Picayune that at least 300 children seeking spots in the city's so-called public schools have been turned away - "wait-listed" - and told that the campuses "would have no room."
"These recent events make a mockery of the promise, made soon after Hurricane Katrina, that a state takeover of New Orleans' public schools would create a 'new birth of excellence and opportunity'" for children in the city's long-troubled school system, McElroy charged.
He said the 17 schools that are part of the state-run Recovery School District are resorting to the same tactics - enrollment caps and selective admission standards - that many of the locally operated charter and non-charter schools have long used to turn away applicants.
McElroy noted that a charter school group called "Teach NOLA" recently sponsored a number of teacher recruitment ads on several Web sites, including Job.net and Idealist.org, that included the proviso: "Certified teachers will teach in charter schools, and non-certified teachers will teach in the state-run Recovery School District."
It seems some children are being left behind.