August 7, 2020

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.

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