Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam

Post-Katrina, public education in New Orleans has represented the very worst of the mindless education reform churn, highlighted by shifting to all charter schools, firing all public school teachers, and investing significantly in Teach For America recruits.

With La. Lawmakers OK Bill to Return New Orleans Charters to Local Oversight, we are faced with how the education reform churn is pointless except in how it ruins the education and lives of students and educators.

This is political football at its most callous.

I, then, want to post below blogs from 2013 and 2014 that remain relevant.

Part I: Disaster Capitalism and Charter Schools: Revisiting New Orleans Post-Katrina

Andrea Gabor examines the rise of charter schools in post-Katrina New Orleans, raising an important question in the subhead: “Are New Orleans’s schools a model for the nation — or a cautionary tale?”

Gabor ends the piece suggesting caution:

But even for students who don’t fall through the cracks or get expelled, it bears asking: have the pressures and incentive systems surrounding charter schools taken public education in the direction we want it to go? Anthony Recasner, a partner in founding New Orleans Charter Middle School and FirstLine, is visibly torn between his hopes for the New Orleans charter experiment and his disappointment in the distance that remains between today’s no-excuses charter-school culture and the movement’s progressive roots. “Education should be a higher-order exploration,” says Recasner, a child psychologist who left FirstLine in 2011 to become CEO of Agenda for Children, a children’s advocacy organization. The typical charter school in New Orleans “is not sustainable for the adults, not fun for kids,” says Recasner, who is one of the few African-American charter leaders in New Orleans; his own experience as a poor child raised by a single parent mirrors that of most students in the charter schools. “Is that really,” he asks, “what we want for the nation’s poor children?”

In my review of Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope for The Wilson Quarterly, I found Carr’s work to suggest, also, that New Orleans was yet more evidence of the failures of charter schools, “no excuses” ideology, and Teach for America. Below is my expanded review:

Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children is a story of place.

Readers see first a map of eastern New Orleans, the 9th and 7th Wards, Treme, French Quarter, and Algiers — situating the three schools at the center of the story, Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Renaissance, SciAcademy, and O. Perry Walker.

As a Southerner, I thought of Yoknapatawpha County maps in William Faulkner’s novels. That connection predicted accurately the narrative Carr shapes about the intersection of place, race, class, education, and America’s pervasive market ideology. New Orleans public schools have a long history of failure connected to the city’s high poverty rates and racial diversity, but post-Katrina New Orleans has experienced a second flood, a school reform surge characterized by charter schools, Teach for America (TFA), and education reformers from outside the city and the South:

But in 2007…Paul Vallas, the new superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District [RSD], helped bring hundreds of young educators to the region. Vallas arrived in New Orleans in 2007 after a decade spent leading the Chicago and Philadelphia schools….Vallas brought the mind-set of a frenetic businessman to the New Orleans superintendency.

An education journalist for over a decade (The Chronicle of Higher Education, New Orleans Times-Picayune), Carr weaves a vivid story of twenty-first century education reform, examining the influx of charter schools in New Orleans as options designed to address high-poverty and minority students. The stories are drawn from principal Mary Laurie, student Geraldlynn Stewart, and TFA recruit and Harvard graduate Aidan Kelly in the wake of Katrina recovery efforts from 2010 through 2012.

The place, New Orleans, is Carr’s touchstone for six parts, each divided among The Family (Geraldlyn’s family), The Teacher (Kelly), and The Principal (Laurie). Geraldlyn expresses ambivalent attitudes about her KIPP education as it contrasts with her mother’s efforts to provide Geraldlyn a better life. Kelly personifies the “missionary zeal” of TFA recruits, but also offers insight into those ideals as they clash with the reality of day-to-day schooling. Dedicated to her city, Laurie was a successful public school educator before Katrina, but after the hurricane, the RSD laid off public school teachers and dissolved the teachers unions; charter schools gave Laurie a new start, but not without complications.

Carr crafts some of the best education reform journalism to date, presenting a critical eye on charter schools (specifically KIPP), TFA, and a market-based model supported by both Republicans and Democrats. Charter schools and TFA represent reform policies that view public school traditions, teacher certification and teachers unions, as root causes of poor academic outcomes. To eradicate those in-school problems, choice and competition are embraced as the primary tools for reform. Carr’s examination, however, calls these claims and solutions into question.

Education journalism often offers slogans such as “miracle schools” and “grit” (Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed and Whatever It Takes, David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars, and Jay Matthews’s Work Hard. Be Nice.). But Carr allows KIPP and TFA advocates to speak for themselves. For example, Kelly reveals his unwavering idealism as it intersects the no-excuses ideology of TFA and KIPP, organizations that attract and encourage privileged young people who believe they can change the world through their own determination.

Instead of silver bullets, Carr presents a nuanced analysis: “A trap confronted schools: If they took the students with the most intense needs, their numbers might suffer. But the state would shut them down if their numbers suffered too much and for too long. Then who would take the neediest?” That analysis is driven by stories. At the end of Part II, Rebirth, Carr quotes Laurie, principal of O. Perry Walker High School:

There are so many stories, she said one afternoon, sitting on a bench under Walker’s breezeway. “I worry that they will get lost, that there’s no one to tell them. My big fear is that all folks will remember is that when Katrina hit, people had to ride in on their white horses and save the children of New Orleans.” She shuddered at the thought.

Yet, stories are often ignored in twenty-first century education after the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Since NCLB, school and teacher accountability has increased, based primarily on high-stakes tests and judged against data such as the achievement gap. Later, a comment from Laurie stands at the center of the education reform movement that Carr’s narrative confronts, unmasks, and exposes powerfully:

“I think we’ve done good work, but I don’t know that the numbers (test scores, attendance and graduation rates) will always reflect our good work because of the kids we take on,” said Laurie, referring to the fact that the school accepts some of the city’s most challenged and challenging students….“Walker’s a twenty-four-seven school. We believe we’ve got to find a way to give kids a safe place to be,” Laurie said. “And that’s not spoken for in these numbers.”

To this, we might add that Laurie’s concern about her charter school in the crucible of New Orleans education reform parallels the often-ignored problem at the center of universal public education in the U.S., a system designed to serve any and all students with equity regardless of background.

While Carr challenges education reform and the limits of good intentions among KIPP and TFA advocates, she also grounds her confrontations in a larger commitment: “At times, both KIPP’s staunchest supporters and its fiercest critics insult and demean the very families they purpose to protect by assuming they, and they alone, know what is best for other people’s children.”

Furthermore, by echoing educator Lisa Delpit’s recognition that many reforms ask less of “other people’s children” by narrowing their learning to worksheets and test-prep, Carr forces critics of KIPP and TFA to examine why many low-income minority parents not only choose no-excuses schools but also enthusiastically encourage no-excuses practices. No-excuses ideologies place an emphasis on authoritarian discipline and a culture of intense personal responsibility that includes teachers and students being held accountable for outcomes that critics warn are beyond the control of either. No-excuses advocates, including parents, embrace the exact paternalism critics challenge.

Carr offers a skeptical voice against education reform mirroring “disaster capitalism” in New Orleans, when markets generate profit from the “blank slate” of disasters (see The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalismby Naomi Klein). Yet, she offers nuanced praise when reformers succeed. For example, students are told at KIPP orientation a Cherokee legend about everyone embodying a good and bad wolf. That lesson gains a life of its own among students: “The fable’s power over their actions seemed to suggest that appealing to a person’s high self, no matter whether they are young teenagers or adults, carries more influence than rules or demerits ever could.”

In the middle of the book, Carr discusses Woodson Middle School, supplanted by a KIPP campus after FEMA declared the building irreparable because of Katrina. Woodson Middle had been named for Carter G. Woodson, author of The Mis-Education of the Negro in the 1930s. Woodson “represented an evolution, and radicalization, of W.E.B. Du Bois’s philosophy, which emphasized black empowerment through political rights and educational attainment” — a “philosophy…[that] stood in stark contrast to the view of contemporary school reformers” such as Michelle Rhee (TFA recruit, former chancellor of education in Washington DC, and founder of Students First), KIPP advocates, and TFA supporters.

Hope Against Hope is a cautionary tale about ideology — reformers honoring market forces over democratic values by stressing indirect reform through choice and competition instead of reforming directly public institutions when they fail to achieve equity — and the muted and ignored agency of people in their own lives.

As Carr acknowledges in the Prologue, her narrative details “competing visions for how to combat racial inequality in America,” but anyone seeking silver bullets, trite slogans, or popular assumptions will find “inside the schools, the war over education no longer seems so stark and clearly defined. Edges blur, shades of gray abound, and simple solutions prove elusive.” Like Kathleen Nolan confronting zero-tolerance policies in Police in the Hallways (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), Carr shows that simple solutions cannot remedy complex problems.

Where claims of “miracle” schools and no-excuses mantras stumble, Hope against Hope soars in its bittersweet humanity, the rich and uncomfortable tapestry of living and learning in poverty in twenty-first century America.

Carr’s Epilogue offers advice for reforming education reform: “If the schools want to succeed in the long run, the education they offer must become an extension of the will of the community — not as a result of its submission.”

To understand U.S. education and education reform, then, Carr’s story of New Orleans is an essential place to start.

Part II: Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam

The horror of 9/11 in 2001 and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 captured both the 24/7 media attention and cultural consciousness in the U.S.

In the wake of each, however, the impact of disaster capitalism has remained mostly ignored and unchallenged.

This is the U.S. response to 9/11:

How to monetize and what will the market bear are the guiding ethics of disaster capitalism, which exists seamlessly within the larger ethic of the U.S., capitalism.

Disaster capitalism came to New Orleans in full force in the wake of Katrina, possibly more powerful than a hurricane, in the person of Paul Vallas and his education policy, the Recovery School District.

Career teachers (a significant percentage of the African American middle-class in the city) were fired and public schools were systematically replaced by charter schools and the new pseudo-teacher workforce (mostly young and privileged Teach For America recruits who were transplanted to New Orleans).

Now, less than a decade after Katrina, Lyndsey Layton reports:

With the start of the next school year, the Recovery School District will be the first in the country made up completely of public charter schools, a milestone for New Orleans and a grand experiment in urban education for the nation.

Layton mostly paints this transformation in a positive light, focusing on an idealized view of market forces:

Advocates say the all-charter model empowers parents.
“We’ve reinvented how schools run,” said Neerav Kingsland of New Schools for New Orleans, which promotes and supports charter schools. He is leaving the organization to try to export the model to other cities. “If I am unhappy with service I’m getting in a school, I can pull my kid out and go to another school tomorrow. I don’t have to wait four years for an election cycle so I can vote for one member of a seven-member board that historically has been corrupt.”
By most indicators, school quality and academic progress have improved in Katrina’s aftermath, although it’s difficult to make direct comparisons because the student population changed drastically after the hurricane, with thousands of students not returning.

But this typically rosy but misleading picture of charter schools presents a different kind of evidence than intended, as Mercedes Schneider exposes:

Layton offers no substantial basis for her opinion of “improvement” other than that the schools were “seized” by the state following Katrina.
Certainly school performance scores do not support Layton’s idea of “improvement.” Even with the inflation of the 2013 school performance scores, RSD has no A schools and very few B schools. In fact, almost the entire RSD– which was already approximately 90 percent charters– qualifies as a district of “failing” schools according to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s definition of “failing schools” as C, D, F schools and whose students are eligible for vouchers.

And even in Layton’s own article, we discover the dark truth beneath the polished sheen of charter school advocacy:

White students disproportionately attend the best charter schools, while the worst are almost exclusively populated by African American students. Activists in New Orleans joined with others in Detroit and Newark last month to file a federal civil rights complaint, alleging that the city’s best-performing schools have admissions policies that exclude African American children. Those schools are overseen by the separate Orleans Parish School Board, and they don’t participate in OneApp, the city’s centralized school enrollment lottery.

Yes, you see, a rising tide does lift all boats, but we forget to point out that a rising tide has no impact on who sits in what boats after that tide rises (just as we never note that a rising tide drowns those without boats, even those without boats through no fault of their own, because market forces are amoral).

Once again, behind the curtain of charter school propaganda we find that there is nothing about “charterness” that will reform the most corrosive aspects of inequity in U.S. schools, corrosive aspects that are a reflection of inequity in society.

The relabeling of schools as “charter,” in fact, is yet another euphemistic tactic to avoid the racism and classism that dare not be mentioned, much less addressed.

As Andre Perry uncovers about “community engagement” in New Orleans:

What does community engagement mean? In particular, how does community engagement work for a “takeover district?” It doesn’t really.
Community engagement is a euphemism for “how to deal with black folk.”
I never use certain metaphors. Immediately after Katrina and the breeches in the levees, I added “hurricane” to a list that includes “slavery,” “rape” and sometimes “war.” I’ve also become very alert to people who use euphemisms to conveniently rob words of their history and meaning.
Standards of decency should rise above poetic license.
Nevertheless, education reformers look to post-Katrina New Orleans as a model to increase the percentage of charter schools, remove attendance zones, take over failing schools, close schools, dissolve teachers unions and decentralize bureaucratically thick school districts.
I’m constantly asked, “In lieu of a hurricane, what can be done to radically reform school districts?” Hurricane has become the unspoken metaphor or referent that reform strategists muse upon to build apparatuses that can initiate the aforementioned strategies. The turnaround/takeover/portfolio district has evolved to become the hurricane of reformers’ desire. As a result, community engagement has become euphemism for “how to deal with black folk in the aftermath.”

Also, Deborah Meier challenges the same euphemistic use of “urban”:

Even the “urban” has switched its meaning. When the 1955 film appeared, it was a word for low-income city kids. It’s now a euphemism for the “African American,” “Latino” poor. The book The Power of Their Ideas starts with me asking kids what it meant to refer to as “inner city” in preparation for a visit to a largely white college. They got it when I added that Dalton (a rich white school 20 blocks further “into” the city) was not considered inner city. It was a euphemism for another euphemism — ghetto.

In other words, “charter school,” “Recovery School District,” “community engagement,” and “parental empowerment” are euphemisms designed to mask the consequences of disaster capitalism.

Charter schools as a rebranding of public schools into a free market model driven by competition and choice teach us some ignored but urgent lessons:

  • When parents choose segregation, that choice should not be on the public dime.
  • No impoverished children should have to depend on their parents’ choices in order to have equitable opportunities to learn

However, it seems unlikely these lessons will be heeded because in the U.S., the entire public is a distracted Nero as our Rome burns in the form of souvenirs for sell at the 9/11 museum and the eradication of public schools.

It is no longer enough to call the charter school movement a “scam” because the consequences are much higher than that, as Layton also reports:

John White, the state’s superintendent of education, agreed that access to the best schools is not equal in New Orleans, but he said the state is prevented by law from interfering with the Orleans Parish School Board’s operations.
“The claim that there’s an imbalance is right on the money,” White said. “The idea that it’s associated with privilege and high outcomes is right on the money.”

And here, we have idiom that speaks to the truth euphemisms avoid, possibly with the simple change of a preposition, about the money.