Making the Case for (Truly) Integrated Public Schools in New Orleans

by Julie Lause, co-founder of Crescent City Schools and the Principal of Harriet Tubman Charter School

Part One: Reflecting on the evolution of New Orleans public education

Since turning into a charter district, New Orleans has seen some of the highest academic gains in the country, and yet we are still deeply divided by race and class. The promise of an improved school system also needs to fulfill the promise of an integrated, socially equitable school system. As a parent and an educator who has worked in this school system for 25 years, I have some ideas about where we should turn next, but I first want to offer a brief refresher on the landscape and how we got to where we are now.

The Past

New Orleans has a history very much like other urban, southern cities post- integration: middle-class divestment from public schools, corruption at the district, financial mismanagement, and decades of low test scores. That was the state of affairs in the 1990’s when I entered the public school system as a first year teacher. There were months we weren’t paid because OPSB couldn’t make payroll. We had four superintendents in three years, all taking huge “retirement” payouts when they left. None of my teacher friends even considered sending their children to public school, and the result after decades was a robust system of private schools that served one-quarter of the city’s children (more than any other city in the country).

One of the things that was true in the 90’s, and persisted until Hurricane Katrina, was that even in a district where 90% of the schools didn’t meet the state threshold for a “D” grade, there were several schools deemed “acceptable” by the middle class. Many of these schools were the selective schools that remain familiar to us: Audubon, Lusher, and Lake Forest. The way you got into those schools? Camp out overnight, or get a test administered by these people, or get the highest scores on achievement tests, or petition your friend the office manager to put you on the list, or rent an apartment in the neighborhood. And on and on.

When I worked with public school students in the 90’s, I had no personal moral struggle educating poor families on the secret ways to access good public schools. That knowledge was passed down over generations and from family to family, and heavily privileged the middle class.

So middle class families, many of them with choices, opted in to the public school system if they got the school of their choice. If they didn’t, they paid for private schools. I know a lot of families with very little means who sacrificed everything they had to send their children to private school. For those with no such choice, they remained in failing neighborhood schools.

There were thousands of deserving children in public schools whose parents didn’t know about the workarounds, who didn’t have a shot at a decent education because they didn’t know the secrets to accessing it. While I don’t begrudge any parent for doing whatever they have to do to navigate a broken system and get the best for their child, it wasn’t fair.

The Present

Now in New Orleans, we have a different system, put into place as a part of the reforms post-Katrina. With the OneApp, parents are not required to attend the neighborhood school: they have free choice to apply to any school in the city.

And (most importantly) they have an equal chance of getting in to that school as anyone else. No more secret workarounds, no more systems that privilege mostly white and mostly middle class parents who are in-the-know. Yes, siblings get preference. And yes, there are a limited number of seats at every school reserved for kids in the zip code around the school, but overall the system we have privileges the things that do not divide us by race or class. Our new system acknowledges that our district has schools of all performance levels, and it spreads around equally the pain of living in a city with a school system that is not excellent yet.

The charter movement has brought lots of positive changes: increased graduation rates, higher teacher salaries, and most importantly, increased test scores. Even more incredibly, these improvements have happened while the state has increased the length, amount, and rigor of state tests and subsequent curriculum. Our students and teachers have risen to the challenge.

All of this has led to another feature of the charter movement: an increase in schools that are deemed “acceptable” by the middle class. It used to just be three schools; now, there are twelve schools regularly cited by middle class parents as desirable for their children.

We know about this wonderful news because the data shows that more middle class families are reentering the school system. I also know this personally because my daughter is in pre-school and I’m on all the mommy groups on Facebook. Partly because of the increased quality in the district and partly because of the increase in high-quality seats, more middle class and white parents are interested in the public school system than ever before.

This increased interest in public schools is evidence that the reforms we have put in place have further-reaching effects than just transformation of our city’s poorest communities.

The problem? The reforms haven’t caught up to the middle class yet.

Yes, the city’s poorest children, those with very few choices outside the public school system, are far better served than they have ever been. There are fewer students in D and F school than ever in the history of our city, and just last year we ranked 7th in the nation for districts with the most growth (and the only majority black district in the top ten).

So why is there so much criticism of the OneApp by this city’s middle class families? Because it doesn’t guarantee their child’s entry into one of their 12 “acceptable” schools.

Here are some of the things I’ve heard from parents and Facebook posters: “I grew up going to public school and I want my child to go to public school. It’s not fair.” “This city is broken if I can’t get assigned to one of my top schools.” “It’s not right that I can’t go to a school I live down the street from.”

I cringe when I hear this, not because these are not well-meaning and civic-minded parents. They are. It’s because it used to be so much worse. For everyone. Now there’s a glimmer of hope to create an equitable, high-quality, open-enrollment public school system, but our very progress is being torn down for not meeting the needs of the privileged yet.

No, our school system is not excellent yet. Yes, there is extreme demand for excellent schools, and not enough seats in them for all the families that want them. But this isn’t evidence that the system is not fair. It’s actually more fair than it’s ever been in the history of our city.

The education reforms which have improved the lives and outcomes for 90% of the city’s children have not given the middle class enough acceptable choices yet. So middle class families are now lobbying for the same kinds of workarounds that used to plague the system.

Just last week, OPSB responded to community pressure by allowing for a new rule that gives priority to students living in a half-mile radius of the most desirable schools. This narrowed neighborhood catchment is different than a zip code zone that encompasses many neighborhoods of varying socioeconomic status. Those with means can now choose to move into a specific neighborhood to get priority at one of their “acceptable” schools. It just so happens that the most desirable schools are in middle class neighborhoods already, and the OneApp system up until now made entry to those schools equitable. We’ve just made it easier for middle class families to gain entry.

I do not believe we should go back to a system that offers workarounds like this. Families in poverty are not asking for these workarounds, and are mostly happy with the changes in our city toward school choice. It’s only those living near A and B schools that want a return to neighborhood schools.

As a city, we do not want the block you live on to determine your options in life. Yes, being guaranteed a spot at the school down the block might make some middle class folks who live next to an ‘A’ school happy, but the long-term effects delay the big picture goal of equity and integration.

Stay tuned for Part II of Julie’s piece coming in a couple weeks that looks to the future opportunities for middle class families and New Orleans public schools.