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Hope for the next black teachers of New Orleans

Spend five minutes asking people in New Orleans about the public schools and someone will reference the firing of 7,000 veteran black teachers immediately after Hurricane Katrina. It’s more than a sore spot. It’s an open wound and every touch on it is like salt and vinegar.

I’ve heard the story told by people young and old. They say “veteran” black teachers were the “backbone” of the black middle class in New Orleans, and those teachers were fired by white school reformers and replaced with young unqualified white teachers.

I get it. The optics are terrible. When hearing the story I find myself incensed.

But the story doesn’t add up, even for me, a certified race man.

If all of those black teachers were Marva Collins – models of culturally responsive teaching who had special insight into how the black children of New Orleans learn, why were results piss poor?

And, if all of their white replacements are youngish versions of Mary Poppins – strict, culturally insufficient, and lacking – then why are results trending the right direction?

As an advocate of black schools, black teachers, and black school leaders I can’t be more sympathetic to the loss of black position in any system. As an advocate of telling the damned truth, no matter how damned it might be, I see the “black teacher fired” story much too convenient.

Who fired them and why?

First, let’s be clear. White school reformers did not fire 7,000 black teachers. The democratically-elected Orleans Parish School Board did. And, they did so for a simple reason: they had no schools, few students, and an uncertain future.

Looking at court documents from the teachers’ lawsuit against the OPSB tells a less racy story:

During its first post-Katrina board meeting on September 15, 2005, the OPSB approved “a resolution to place employees on disaster leave as a result of Hurricane Katrina given the emergency closure of all schools and the subsequent lack of revenues.” The “disaster leave” was without pay, retroactive to August 29, 2005, and allowed the employees to collect unemployment benefits while New Orleans and the OPSB tried to recover from the hurricane.

According to Lourdes Moran, an elected member of the OPSB at the time who spoke at an education conference this past summer, the board did not want to let the teachers go. These were people the board cared about who, like most New Orleanians, were facing traumatic issues. In the end Lourdes says “we were told by the state that we could not continue paying teachers because it was illegal.”

When it was time to hire teachers again education leaders faced challenges getting teachers back. Some teachers found better jobs in their new home states that paid more and had better resources. Some found work in neighboring Jefferson Parish or other stable districts. Many others struggled to find housing in New Orleans which made it difficult to return.

As a result the Recovery School District faced a hiring crunch, rising classroom sizes, and waiting lists for students to get back into schools.

Even still, 86% of teachers hired to work in the state-run school system were veteran teachers from the Orleans Parish public schools.

Yes, the system fired veteran black teachers. The system hired them too.

Some of them needed to go

In all of the digging I did over the past year it’s curious no one said the fired teachers were effective or that kids were really learning.

Mostly people use words like “veteran” and “experienced” as proxies for quality. They add that the fired black teachers “knew the kids” and “were the backbone of the black middle class.”

While nice descriptors, and with all due respect, teachers are not simply cultural nannies, and teaching is better assessed by its results for kids, not for the lifestyles it affords adults.

The children of New Orleans deserve every shot at a good life we can proivde them. We can’t get there by viewing schools as a jobs program for the black bourgeoisie. And, to be clear, I will never buy the myth that the black middle class of New Orleans has ever had adequate black consciousness about the plight of the black poor. As a New Orleanian who didn’t attend the tony selective admission schools, or the black parochial schools, or the magnet enclaves, I had teachers who obviously were not models of cultural responsiveness.

Yes, some of the previous NOLA schools had many lovely,dedicated people working hard in a deeply dysfunctional system that blocked them from doing their best work.

At the same time, many others needed to go.

Only insiders will talk about how subterranean the quality of teaching was in the previous system, and they’ll only do it in hushed whispers with a hand over their mouth. It’s seen as antagonistic to the emotive cries about fired teachers. Probably unwise from a communications perspective too. But writing should be about truth and making the public smarter.

So here it is: during the rebuilding of NOLA schools the RSD feared accusations they were putting warm bodies in to classrooms without care for quality. As a safeguard they instituted a basic skills test for teacher candidates.

One third of the returning teachers failed that test.

Do what you will with that information.

Black is the new black

There is one thing that prevents me from being more alarmed about the fired black teachers. It’s the fact that New Orleans has a majority black teaching force today.

Indeed, 54% of NOLA teachers are black; 58% of the Recovery School District school leaders are black, and 58% of all school leaders are from New Orleans; 54% of RSD charter school board members are black.

In 2013, black New Orleanians were 59% of the city’s population. In any other sector of American life we would see that as fair representation. Especially when out of the 3,385,200 teachers in the United States only 7% are black.

And yes, schools like Bethune elementary, Behrman Charter School, and the InspireNOLA and Algiers charter management organizations pride themselves on hiring “veteran” teachers, not discarding them. But they do so empowered by the autonomy to hire for quality. That didn’t exist in the old schools.

If teachers and school leaders are in fact the “backbone” of the black middle class, then the good news is that segment is growing in New Orleans. Great black school leaders and educators working hard in a new system with many hopeful new possibilities.

The better news is this time growth of the black middle class isn’t disconnected from the idea that academic results for poor black children is the only reason to teach.

I pray the next wave of black teachers in New Orleans will focus on getting a generation of children into the middle class rather than focusing on 7,000 government jobs as the discrete goal of public education.

For the kids people, for the kids.

Pursuing the power of self-sovereignty and personalized learning to create secure citizens and abundant communities. #TheOppositeOfSchool #AllPowerToThePupil

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Short note about Network of Public Education’s (NOPE) focus on education fraud

My friends at NOPE need to broaden their scope of fraud reveals.

My friends at the Network of Public Education (NOPE) have an ongoing series under the hashtag #AnotherDayAnotherCharterSchool that aims to keep your eyes trained on the supposed never-ending abuses and fraud case in charter schools.

I applaud their commitment to public integrity and I share their vigilance in rooting out grift in public systems. Yet, their myopic focus on a small subset of public schools, in this case charters, is suspicious.

Why not expose all fraud, especially in the bigger system?

Well, you’ll have to ask them. They’ve mostly blocked me on twitter for asking such questions.

I guess their unionist funders and the privileged parents they cater to in America’s suburban hoarding schools want a clean message. Traditional schools with union teachers that work with privileged parents to rig the system in favor of white, middle-class, pampered children, well, that’s good.

Schools built for, by, or in favor of children so unfortunate as not to have suburban, white, progressive, college-educated families capable of obtaining mortgages for houses near the best hoarding schools, well, you know the drill, they must be stopped.

Thus, the campaign to turn public opinion against the most popular competitor to sputtering state-run schools that employ more people than they educate, and drown in so much pension debt that they can ill-afford parents choosing anything other than district failure farms.

In the interest of truth I should tell you that fraud in public education is indeed every bit the problem that NOPE says it is, but it’s much broader than they admit.

I’ve offered examples before, but here’s another from today’s reading list. In this article on lax oversight of millions of dollars of expenditures in Pittsburgh Public Schools:

a KDKA investigation has found that the Pittsburgh Public Schools have issued no less than 650 of these cards to teachers and staff, who are racking up millions of dollars of purchases every year.

And while the cards are not supposed to be used for personal purchases, Controller Michael Lamb says it’s a system of loose oversight and controls that IS based mainly on trust.

“When you have that many cards, you lose control,” Lamb said. “And when the proper procedures aren’t in place, you create the opportunity for fraud. And that’s what you have in the school district right now.”
KDKA filed a right-to-know request for purchases made over the last three years and the results were eye-popping.

Last year alone, teachers and staff rang up a total of $3,254,000 in p-card purchases, with some putting upwards of $20,000 or $30,000 on their individual cards.

The summaries obtained by KDKA show purchases from Amazon, Sam’s Club, Staples and Giant Eagle.

And while employees are supposed to submit receipts and the stated reason for each purchase, controller office audits have found that it is hard to tell if all or most of those purchases are legitimate.

But at Faison School, for example, the controller’s office found no p-card reports for half of the 12 months audited and missing documentation for dozens of the purchases that were listed.

And KDKA’s review found questionable expenditures, as well.
Records show that teachers and staff at Oliver Academy used cards on a weekly and bi-weekly basis at both Wiseguys Pizza and Kuhn’s supermarket — raising the question of whether they were using the cards for their own lunches and groceries.

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Fuller to charter advocates: You’re in a fight, don’t run home to Mama!

Dr. Howard Fuller has been on the vanguard of the fight for educational options, and today he has a message for education advocates: fight for your lives!

Charter schools came to the education game as a bipartisan plan to force a “bold departure” from the failure trap that caught too many students in traditional public schools.

Creating alternatives to assigned district schools for families that wanted them was picking a fight with the educational establishment that lives or dies on the student headcount that drives per pupil revenue. Now, after years of losing market share, the empire is striking back with organized moves to establish moratoriums on charter growth, forge attacks on the the integrity of charter supporters, and calcifying public narratives about the supposed negative impacts of charters on public education.

So what do reform advocates do when the opponent finally hits back (hard) and our cherished reforms take a public whooping like they stole something?

According to lifelong freedom fighter Dr. Howard Fuller we firm our spines and fight like we mean it. That’s what he told attendees at a recent conference for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

“You can’t go running home to your mama,” he says. “There are people out there who don’t care that you all have created good schools. They don’t care that you are going to teach computer science. They don’t care.”

His message comes at a time when weary charter school supporters are feeling drained from constant attacks, and many are vacillating between wanting to stand their ground and wanting to accommodate anti-charter organizers by finding fleeting common ground.

“They want you to not exist,” Fuller said of the organized opponents of charter schools.

See his powerful speech below.

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It’s time to admit Diane Ravitch’s troubled crusade derails honest debate about public education

The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress.

I should start adding a qualifier when I say the former scholar and historian Diane Ravitch is the Ann Coulter of education commentary.

In fairness, Coulter has better manners and makes more attempts to employ logic as she “owns” the libs with verbal Jujitsu.

Ravitch, by contrast, has fallen irreparably into polemics so much that her daily blogs put her in league with Alex Jones’ made-for-YouTube Info Wars.

Along those lines, her blog-fart today ties “the charter industry” to the “infamous pedophile and “super-rich” Jeffrey Epstein.

“In 2013, his foundation issued a press release announcing that he looked forward to the dominance of charter schools in Washington, D.C. and predicted that they would succeed because they were unregulated,” she crows.

Then she offers crude analysis of why people like Epstein would want to privatize schools in D.C.:

People often ask me, “Why do the super-rich cluster to the cause of privatization?” The Answer is not simple because many different motives are at work. Some see giving to charters as a charitable endeavor, and their friends assure them that they are “giving back,” helping poor children escape poverty. Others want to impress their friends in their social strata, their colleagues in the world of high finance. Being a supporter of charter schools is like belonging to the right clubs, going to the right parties, sharing a cause with other very rich people.

If you are reading this you probably know that Ravitch was once a charter school supporter, and that makes it fair to ask which camp of nincompoops she fell into?

Did she see charters as a “charitable endeavor,” or was charter support her attempt to “impress [her] friends in [her] social strata, [and her] colleagues in the world of high finance.”

Only she can say, but as an established scholar of education history (and a player in policy) it’s doubtful her support was so in want of a factual basis.

During testimony to Congress conservative William Bennett gave decades ago he invoked Ravitch as a bipartisan voice for school choice.

Regarding the school reforms that were advancing in Chicago under Mayor Daley and Paul Vallas Bennett declared “[t]he empirical evidence, now widely available, is irrefutable: Not only are many of our public-schools not getting better, they are getting worse. American students finish in the bottom half, and often near the bottom, in comparison to students from other industrialized nations.”

Then, after promoting the benefits of charter schools, he asked lawmakers to “follow my friend Diane Ravitch’s prescript” to:

…make Title I into a “portable entitlement” that would aid all poor kids regardless of what school they attend. This is the one way to assure that every single Title I child will receive Title I services at the school they currently attend. This is also the best way to assure accountability. If a parent is not satisfied with the Title I services they are getting, they can take their Title I dollars with them to the school or provider of choice; power to the parents, and not bureaucrats, in other words.

Was Ravitch’s support for school choice back then the result of suspicious philanthropy, or glossy marketing to mindless parents, or, more logically,  the result of her considerable scholarship by that point in her life?

Again, only she can say.

In the spring of 1997 she praised then-New York Pataki’s proposed charter school policies that allowed groups other than local boards to grant charters, allowed for an un-capped number of charters to open, and allowed these schools to hire teachers who weren’t state certified.


In supporting Pataki’s push she said:

It’s impossible to know whether a law permitting charter schools will emerge from this session of the Legislature; the opposition of the teachers’ union, which is the most powerful voice in Albany on education issues, is certainly not encouraging. This is unfortunate, for a large and vital network of charter schools in New York would offer hope to educators, parents, and students in troubled school districts and would promote higher academic standards for all the state’s public schools.

Why would she support such craven policies of such anti-democratic that today she maligns as wealthy pedophiles and privatizers? Projection much?

Forget that teachers’ unions – the ones Ravitch herself once admitted were the “most powerful voices in education” – today block legislation making it a crime for teachers to sexualize students, defeat resolutions that called for them to re-dedicate their profession to student achievement, and pay retail civil rights organizations to defeat the voices of their grassroots members.

Here’s the real kick to the taco, when Lamar Alexander pitched the idea that every D.C. school should be converted to a charter (in 1997, six years before Epstein arrived at the same conclusion) he ascribed this definition of charter schools to his friend Diane Ravitch:

Think of a charter school as a public school district with only one school. It receives public funds, agrees to meet clear academic standards and accepts all students who apply. Unlike existing public schools, it has a contract that can be revoked if the school fails to make good on its commitments.

If she were at all generous she would at very least admit the decency of long-term charter backers who hold valid theories for why charters improve the educational landscape. The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress. The tensions between autonomy and regulation, local control and federal oversight, and public education as an institution or as a service to American learners could still be exercised by smart people truly seeking solutions to the inarguable problems of public schooling.

But not if we follow the zero-sum and divisive lead of Ravitch whose enemy-imaging toward those who differ on policy has escalated so far she no longer sees them as human. We’ll predictably end up in her abyss of false binaries, intellectual excursions, and forlorn paralysis.

Given Ms. Ravitch’s clever wits and stockpile of information I can’t imagine she leads us to that confused, somber place by accident. There is no better way to ensure the education establishment’s special interests – those who are among Ravitch’s most ardent disciples – are never brought to account than to ignore the brisk but level Ravitch of yesteryear and listen to the caustic and battled one before us now.


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