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New Orleans: Success or Failure?

By Peter Greene — August 05, 2015 5 min read
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With the release of the latest bundle of number crunching, Doug Harris and the Education Research Alliance have once again launched the Debate of the Decade-- is the New Orleans privatization experiment a success or a failure?

The Argument for Success

The ERA is a project of Tulane University where Harris is a professor of economics, and I want not to hold that against him, but the number of economists who have declared themselves educational experts over the past couple of decades is staggering and worthy of its own study.

Harris’s argument for success is fairly simple. Before Katrina, test scores in NOLA were really low. Now they are performing at the level they “ought to be” performing as compared to models of imaginary similar students.

So. Test scores were low. Now they’re not. Success!

What else?

No, that’s it. That’s the whole argument. Students in NOLA are getting better scores on standardized math and reading tests. That’s the whole thing.

So. Any reasons we shouldn’t be excited about this news?

Glad you asked. We could get into a long and involved discussion of ERA’s data and the crunching thereof. But if that’s your cup of tea, I recommend the work of Mercedes Schneider and Crazy Crawfish, just for starters.

But for the sake or argument, let’s go ahead and accept Harris’s numbers as accurate and move on. Can we still call the Great NOLA Privatization Experiment a success?

Yes, even if we accept that the numbers are correct, Harris acknowledges that the pursuit of test scores has led to some dicey practices, and NOLA does seem rife with tales of push-outs and creaming, as school principals strive to make their data points.

But there’s a bigger question (though no less important) than whether or the numbers are legit. The bigger question is, even if the numbers are legit, are they worth the cost?

Disenfranchised public

Journalist Jennifer Berkshire’s recent trip to New Orleans provides a vivid picture of how thoroughly NOLA reformsters have pushed locals aside-- even locals who agree with the charterfication agenda. Parents, community leaders, and, of course, the 7,000 teachers who used to work in the system.

It’s not just that this leads to the bizarre spectacle of a predominantly brown and black local communities having their “public” schools run by mostly white outsiders. It’s that the entire democratic structure has been tossed out, suspended as surely as if New Orleans were some 18th century island nation where a foreign power had landed, planted its flag, and declared itself the new local government.

Berkshire quotes New Orleans parent advocate Ashana Bigard: “It’s like there is no place for New Orleanians at the table.”

Destablizing the community

The 7,000 local teachers, middle class members of community, have been replaced by edutourists, modern-day classroom carpetbaggers, often Teach for America temps. They may very well have the best of intentions-- but those intentions too rarely include “move to New Orleans and make it my home for the rest of my life.”

More insidiously, New Orleans communities no longer have community schools. What serves as a central anchor, a tie that helps connect the people who live near each other-- that anchor is gone. Students disperse each morning in a crazy web of bus routes and come home, late in the day, to a neighborhood of strangers. And the parents associated with a particular school can no longer gather easily to share concerns and take action, because they too are spread across the city.

And of course the charters themselves come and go as they rise and fall. A true public school is a long term commitment that a community makes to its children. Charters commit to stay only as long as it make business sense.

Personal enrichment

Head over to twitter and look at the hashtag #NOLAedwarning. There’s an awful lot to absorb, but the tales include school leaders and charter operators who are being paid truckloads of money.

NOLA is often discussed as a charter experiment, but I think it’s more accurate to think of it as a privatization experiment. NOLA answers the question, “What would a school system look like if every single decision were a business decision?”

I will never argue business is automatically evil. But if schools are businesses, then they must have an adversarial relationship with their students-- every dollar spent on a student is a dollar that doesn’t go into the business’s bank account.

Repurposing education

When reformsters swept in and took over the New Orleans school system, they didn’t just decide how the system would be run-- the decided what the purpose of the system would be.

The role of schools in building community, schools as a democratic expression of a local community’s goals for its children, schools as a broad tapestry of possibilities and enrichment for individual students, schools as institutions that enriched the life of a neighborhood, schools as a hothouse in which to grow local leaders, schools as the most fundamental expression of our democratic values in a pluralistic society, schools as a path for students to pursue their own self-directed broad range of personal life goals, schools as institutions of support and growth cenetered around the needs of the child-- those roles were all jettisoned, tossed out the window.

Instead, reformsters remade NOLA schools around one roles-- the purpose of schools is to get students to score well on a standardized math and reading test.

The real question

As the fooferaw over the ERA report continues, arguments will center around whether or not the report is accurate, trustworthy, believable. In other states, it will feed the continued push to export the NOLA model by declaring that the model was successful.

But the real question, the important question, the question that must be asked again and again, is whether the NOLA concept of success-- pursuing test scores by sacrificing every single value we traditionally associate with public schools-- whether that success is even worth pursuing in the first place.

Let’s not spend so much time discussing whether or not NOLA won the race that we forget to ask whether the race was ever worth running in the first place.

The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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