Column

Stop saying it’s “best for the kids” when it’s really about ignoring the black community

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

From left to right: Orleans Parish Supt. Henderson Lewis, Total Community Action President and CEO Thelma French, OPEN Executive Director Deirdre Johnson Burrel, InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McKneely, and New Orleans College Prep Founder and CEO Ben Kleban, at a forum on school reform sponsored by 100 Black Men of New Orleans.

Communities shouldn’t accept the flagrantly negative tradeoffs that come with school reform.

Reforms can only be sustained by the very communities that use them. That’s the bottom line for New Orleanians involved in the current effort to bring charter schools in the Recovery School District back into the New Orleans Public School District. The public has the rights to good schools and good governance. And if it isn’t the bottom line for the rest of the country, it should be.

The charter movement was supposed to be about greater autonomy for schools. It doesn’t require tearing apart school districts, dividing educators and removing basic voting rights of citizens. But all of these things happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. So what if we have higher test scores? The goal isn’t to myopically improve schools; the goal is to improve community.

Elected officials seem to agree. Louisiana State Senator Karen Carter Peterson, in consultation with district and school leaders, introduced Senate bill 432, which seeks the return of RSD schools back to the Orleans Parish School Board by 2018. The bill is receiving little to no opposition.

The meat of the bill is that “the local school board shall not impede the operational autonomy of a charter school under its jurisdiction.”

Many prominent educators are on board as well.

“The most important factor is the unification of our school system for our city,” said Jamar McKneely, CEO of Inspire NOLA Charter Schools. “I believe that our citizens deserve the right to democracy, to actually be in control of our current school system, and as a city we have to move there as early as possible.” McKneely, who was part of a panel last week hosted by 100 Black Men of New Orleans, also points to inequities that are created by having two systems. He has charter schools in both Orleans Parish and the RSD.

In a statement announcing the 100 Black Men’s The Time is Now! initiative, chapter president Jonathan Wilson stated, “The time is now for us to bring the conversation to the public and seek unified action by our school board and other local elected officials to bring the schools back to our community’s control.”

Even stalwarts of the New Orleans charter movement don’t see the placement in a district with an elected board as a threat to school autonomy. At the same forum, Ben Kleban, CEO of New Orleans College Prep, said, “I don’t think just because the school board isn’t going to be directly running the schools as it used to that that means that there can’t be appropriate engagement and oversight from our local community.”

Kleban expressed that school leaders and the larger community have learned that giving schools autonomy for activities germane to curriculum and instruction is good for children and that shouldn’t be compromised. McKneely, Wilson and Kleban are part of a coalition calling for the return of schools.

Not everyone is happy with the inevitable return; if you listen, you’ll hear howling in the political wind. These are the bellows of funders and charter reform advocates.  Have they just discovered that their investments in school improvements don’t neatly equate to investments in political sovereignty? At what point does blocking people’s right to authentic representation for the sake of “what’s best for the children” move from paternalism to outright discrimination?

Related: Charter schools drain resources from district schools in Mississippi, Jackson educators say

Educators who taught in the old Orleans Parish freely admit that the former system had serious problems.

In fact, these problems meant they were often unable to make the kind of decisions that boost academic achievement.

But they also do not think it’s a good deal to trade system bureaucracy for paternalistic funders and political disenfranchisement.

In addition, the relatively easy work of breaking up a district isn’t a panacea.

Districts in other cities across the country can look at Senate bill 432 as a general framework for allowing schools to have autonomy.

Cities shouldn’t accept the reform package of eliminating attendance zones, dissolving collective bargaining agreements, or chartering all schools. Communities must find their own way, not the wholesale purchase of someone else’s vision. The ulterior motives of union busting and limiting voting power of black and brown folk are unsustainable and specious to giving schools and teachers what they need to succeed.

Related: Leading by example: Black male teachers make students ‘feel proud’

To ignore the call for elected representatives who are accountable to a voting public is an affront to black people’s freedom.

There are large investments in breaking apart systems in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Detroit, Memphis, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

To the people in these cities: You can help transform your district to give principals the freedoms and tools they need without creating a virtual Hurricane Katrina to break apart a system. Just as outsiders to New Orleans loosely say how the system in their particular city needs a Katrina, without knowing the depth of its aftermath; education advocates need to check their dismissal of the disenfranchisement that occurs in pursuit of academic achievement.

For instance, we see the muckety-mucks of reform strategically sit on multiple school boards as a back door way to control a system without the consent of the voting public. (We should limit the number of school boards a person can sit on.) It is common practice for local philanthropists to give schools contributions in exchange for influence. (This isn’t philanthropy; it’s bribery). Educators despise these behaviors as much if not more than bureaucratic nonsense. But voicing this concern is even more difficult in this environment.

Stubbornly saying schools should not return to a district has little to do with “what’s best for the kids.” That rhetoric is really more about having the ability and resources to ignore the wishes of the black community.

This is the white privilege of education reform.

Let’s be clear, it’s not just white folks doing this. There are lots of black faces on a white agenda.

The people who send their kids to the public schools should have a democratic say in how their schools are run.

So should those who live in the city limits.

Will the funders continue to support schools at similar levels if New Orleanians have more control?

That remains to be seen.

If funders pull out, then it becomes clear that investments weren’t for the kids – at least not the kids who will eventually grow up to vote.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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