Column

Building educational “success” on the backs of fired black teachers

Was the human cost of New Orleans’ school choice reforms really worth it?

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

A supporter of the United Teachers of New Orleans, a local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers holds a sign during a demonstration in which hundreds marched across the Mississippi River Bridge on April 1, 2006 in New Orleans, Louisiana for the right of displaced Hurricane Katrina evacuees to vote in the April 22 elections.

How did New Orleans prove urban-education reform can “work”? By firing and replacing the black workforce of course.

For many, the New Orleans experiment is an example of what is possible in education reform. And the mass firing of mainly black teachers and school personnel in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is shamefully justified by increases in test scores. Only white reform apologists accept this as a worthwhile tradeoff. New research finally confirms what New Orleans’ black community knows too well: the “success” came at the great cost of rejecting black talent.

“While the educational implications here are ambiguous, what is clear is that the mass dismissals have had a lasting impact on the teachers themselves, their families, and the community,” according to the latest report from the Education Research Alliance (ERA) at Tulane University.

There are too many nefarious ways to close an achievement gap. Success must also mean increasing graduation rates in high school and college. It calls for reducing the rate kids are disciplined, removed from school, incarcerated, and entered into the criminal justice cycle. Success demands reducing student debt. And in the long term, it must mean ensuring opportunities to work in the city in which you live. Black teachers had always been a bulwark of the middle class – by taking away the opportunity to teach in their community, you remove a proven route out of poverty.

Related: What happened when a city full of teachers, most of them black, was fired

As Los Angeles and Las Vegas try to create their own Katrina to reform their districts, weakening labor unions and firing local talent are seen as successes in themselves. But we have yet to study the negative consequences of New Orleans reform. Twelve years after the storm, researchers at the ERA provide statistics on the still open wound in their newly released study, but it provides no salve. It only shows that black lives don’t matter.

From the more than 7,000 employees that were terminated in total in New Orleans, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) dismissed approximately 4,300 teachers, 71 percent of whom were black, 78 percent women. Collectively, the fired teachers had more than 15 years of average teaching experience.

About half of the terminated teachers returned to Louisiana public schools by fall 2007. However, only 37 percent were re-employed by 2013, including 15 percent who worked in other parishes. Sixty-three percent of the teachers who worked before Katrina were no longer in the field a decade later.

Comparatively, 80 percent of the cohort of 2004-05 teachers from other Louisiana parishes were still employed in 2007-08, 30 percentage-points higher than the New Orleans dismissed teacher cohort. When considering differences across parishes and storm effects, researchers estimate that it’s closer to 16 percentage points. And the aftermath of the storm certainly assisted efforts to wash away former teachers.

“Overall, our best estimate is that the combined effects of dismissal and reform, separate from the hurricane effect, reduced the 2007 education employment of pre-Katrina New Orleans teachers by at least 16 percentage points,” the study says.

In other words, the decimation of the black teaching force after Katrina was a man-made disaster. There was a philosophy rooted in the distrust of black people that still goes unnamed. When you don’t see black teachers as talented resources, you don’t make attempts to hire them. Reformers used an antiseptic term to describe it: strategic management of human capital. It’s apparently easier to treat black teachers as expendable if you think of them as capital, not people.

Many independent charter leaders chose not to hire local teachers (mostly black). The Recovery School District entered into teacher contracts with organizations that favored out-of-towners. By limiting their hiring to these firms, certain charter leaders created a kind of place-based discrimination we don’t have laws to combat. Adding insult to injury, non-profit groups were set up to support the new human capital as they found new jobs and places to live.

The school board may have officially done the offing but nonprofit groups, civic leaders and school chiefs have their fingerprints all over shutting out black folk.

Black teachers may have been fired, but many didn’t – couldn’t – go away. The firings accelerated early retirements. Teachers were forced to work in lower paying social services jobs. Blackballed teachers were priced out of their homes. Displacement removed role models that extended beyond the classroom.

Related: Betsy DeVos should know robbing Peter to pay Paul is a sin in education

ERA found that race didn’t limit teachers’ ability to return to work in 2007, and black teachers who did find work were more likely to stay in public schools through 2013 by about 4 percent. The report found that black teachers were more likely to return to New Orleans forgoing options in other districts. Translation: black teachers are as much community members as they are workers. For black professionals, teaching can’t be confused as diplomatic mission or a stepping-stone to the next real opportunity.

The loss of teachers still drags on the black community. By 2014, the percentage of black teachers dropped to 49 percent according to figures calculated by the Data Center, a non-profit research outfit based in New Orleans. This drop was equivalent to about 4 percent of the entire African American working-age population.

There are people who will look at these numbers, acknowledge the injury caused to local teachers, say “hindsight is 20/20” and also continue to brag about the promise of New Orleans. Many of the same players who facilitated the reduction in black labor would do it again.

But for me, this study is just another reminder that there is nothing to be celebrated about building off the backs of black labor.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about New Orleans.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is the former founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Previously, Perry worked in… See Archive

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