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Right wing uses Katrina crisis to push privatization
The plan to wreck New Orleans schools

December 9, 2005 | Page 4

A NIGHTMARE mix of right-wing politicians, corporate consultants and education fortune-seekers are out to take advantage of the crisis caused by Hurricane Katrina, and wipe out public schools in New Orleans.

Their weapon of choice: charter schools--the privatization scheme under which public schools receiving public funds are managed under different rules, often by private companies operating outside the authority of local school boards. JESSE SHARKEY, a Chicago teacher and member of AFT Local 1, reports on another atrocity in New Orleans.

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AT THE end of November, the Louisiana state legislature passed a law to take control of 102 of the 117 public schools in New Orleans, turning most into charter schools.

Separately, the Education Committee of Bring New Orleans Back--a post-disaster government planning agency--has devised a plan to restrict the operation of the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB), which runs New Orleans Public Schools, to just eight schools. As the school board's consulting firm, Alvarez and Marsal, stated bluntly in a November 14 report, "It is possible that OPSB could in the short term resemble a liquidating entity."

For its part, the federal government has offered the struggling city a $20.9 million grant--to be used exclusively for developing charter schools.

The city has reopened just one public school, despite calls to do more from parents and a lawsuit from the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO), which alleges that the city is purposely dragging its feet.

At the state level, rightwing politicians in Louisiana see the disaster in New Orleans as a kind of political opportunity. The depopulation of New Orleans means that political equilibrium has shifted towards conservative rural areas of the state. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, championed the school takeover legislation, has overseen $500 million in budget cuts in many essential services--while somehow finding room in the budget to cut taxes on oil companies.

The oil giants "don't need relief right now," Karen Carter, of the state's Legislative Black Caucus told the Los Angeles Times. "To offer them something more when we are making cuts in central services makes absolutely no sense."

On the local level, school rebuilding efforts have attracted a who's who list of educational "reformers" motivated by a sense of opportunity, and ready to launch an ideologically driven mass experiment on working-class children's education.

The education steering committee directing the school changes in New Orleans is comprised of 19 people, according to the Bring New Orleans Back Web site. They include representatives from IBM and the Gates Foundation--but not members of the New Orleans teachers union. The Catholic Archdiocese is represented, but no teachers, parents or other school workers.

This goes beyond kicking the schools when they are down. The right wing is salivating over the possibilities for educational change in New Orleans.

Katie Newmark, a researcher of the American Enterprise Institute gushed, "In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many have blamed the New Orleans government for the city's poor preparedness--and rightly so. But let's also give credit where credit is due: the city government is making good decisions about restoring New Orleans public schools."

According to the plan, some 25,000 of the school district's anticipated 44,000 students will be part of a "Recovery District" by September 2006. There is no plan or public discussion of who will run these charter schools, what curriculum they will follow, or what conditions will be like for teachers. In other words, this is a blind leap into the free market.

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DESPITE THE rhetoric of their advocates, there isn't any evidence to suggest that charters will improve education in New Orleans. According to a U.S. Department of Education study last year that looked at five different states, charter schools were less likely to meet state education goals than public schools.

So New Orleans is to become a city without a public school system, where 100-plus schools are run by an assortment of subcontractors answering to charter operators, who in turn are responsible to right wing political hacks at the state level.

Trust a corporate consultant to sell this travesty as opportunity. A report by the consulting firm Alvarez and Marsal concluded: "New Orleans will evolve from one public school district pre-Katrina to systems of schools, offering parents and children citywide choice as to which school they will attend."

If all this sounds like a dream scenario for corrupt profit-seeking and the ideologically driven abandonment of public education, it will be a nightmare for children, parents and teachers.

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IMPORTANTLY, THE right-wing agenda for New Orleans schools is not the only vision for the future. The UTNO has produced a document that not only tells the other side of the story, but puts forward a plan that could revitalize New Orleans schools. It is worth quoting at length:

As the 60,000 students and their families, and the 8,000 employees and their families--together equaling perhaps one-third or more of the city's population--sat shocked in shelters and in the homes of relatives, friends and strangers, Hurricane Katrina swept through and engulfed their city, extinguishing much of what they had known of their lives they were living just days before. For most, all that was familiar--homes, friends, neighborhoods, jobs--vanished or was a long way from recovering. All that was left to sustain them was hope and a determination to return and rebuild their lives...

[T]he situation was not hopeless. Large sections of the city--including the West Bank and Uptown--had been spared the ruinous floodwaters. Almost immediately, hotels and restaurants began working to restore their businesses. Business owners took out ads seeking news from their employees about their whereabouts and safety, and in many cases, offering reassurance to them that they would not be abandoned.

For the 68,000 students and employees of New Orleans Public Schools (NOPS), however, the story was different. Instead of their own sustaining hope being reinforced by their leaders, they were sent a discouraging word: Schools would not reopen for the entire school year. For them, that meant a return to the city would be impossible, regardless of the fate of their homes.

As dispiriting as it was, the lack of a far-seeing leadership is something New Orleans students and employees had become used to, especially in the last five or six years--a period which just happens to coincide with the tenure of the longest-serving school board members, and during which New Orleans Public Schools has experienced its greatest crisis of leadership ever, with at least eight superintendents--permanent, acting, interim or other--having stood at the helm...

Time has come for those most closely and intimately involved in education, those whose lives are most affected by it--the givers and receivers--to say that no longer will we stand around waiting for leaders to rescue us from the metaphorical rooftops where we find ourselves now.

Today, United Teachers of New Orleans is calling for a renaissance of the public schools of New Orleans. To achieve this, we recommend that the district do the following:

1. Immediately begin the process of reopening schools.

2. Establish a teacher, parent and administrator committee at each school as it reopens to assess the complete needs of the school and its students.

3. Continue with the academic programs that have brought steady, demonstrable academic progress over the last two years.

4. Implement real reforms known to lead to academic progress, including research-based programs and smaller class sizes.

5. Commit to providing modern facilities for students and maintaining all facilities in optimum condition and appearance.

6. Offer after-school instruction and social support for those who need it and an abundance of extracurricular activities for all students to be able to choose from.

7. Establish a broad-based, citywide committee to address NOPS' future.

8. Adopt a code of ethics and demeanor for all elected and appointed leaders.

The people most affected by the crisis in the New Orleans schools have the clearest and most effective vision of what will fix their schools. But they are reeling--the people of New Orleans are dispersed around the country, and the right wing in on the offensive.

The teachers' unions, defenders of public education, and opponents of the right will need to take action.

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