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This week, the Black Alliance of Educational Options (BAEO) convenes its Annual Symposium in New Orleans, a battleground city for school reform validation (some may say disapproval). As a Symposium participant, I’m leading a town hall dialogue described as “[a] discussion of the progress that has been made to reform public education in New Orleans post-Katrina and a dialogue about how difficult issues such as race, class, community participation, and power will impact education reform efforts going forward.”

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But how should we measure progress? As New Orleans approaches the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, assayers will inquire: Has education improved since the storm? This simplistic question elicits rhetorically loaded responses in which test scores and demographic shifts are thrown around like Mardi Gras beads. In my opinion, there’s no more important framework of progress than: Are poor black and brown residents of New Orleans any more equipped to leave and return to New Orleans after a natural disaster? Consequently, a conversation on educational progress must point to evidence of true community empowerment among poor residents of color.

Let’s be clear; poor black folk in New Orleans need more than increased performances on standardized tests. Life expectancy in New Orleans’ poorest zip code is 25.5-years lower than the zip code with the least amount of poverty. Forty-two percent of Orleans Parish children live in poverty. Whites on average earn twice as much as blacks.  Less than 50 percent of black men are in the workforce. One in 14 black men is behind bars; one in seven is either in prison, on parole or on probation. You don’t have to be a demographer or statistician to know the validity of these numbers – walk down MLK Blvd. in New Orleans.

BAEO and other community-based organizations should understand that truth in numbers comes in the forms of actual human capital – educational achievement, jobs, safety, wealth, political representation and self-reliance. Relevant reform and innovation attend to these issues simultaneously. The New Orleans black community can certainly use less rhetoric and narrative manipulation and more black teachers who are durable residents of the city.
[pullquote]“Let’s be clear; poor black folk in New Orleans need more than increased performances on standardized tests.”[/pullquote]
A community-centric conversation on educational progress should seek human capital gains. But this type of conversation demands that we shed our pro- or anti-reform affiliations. Let’s talk allocation of resources to the people who need it most. If we honestly assessed human capital gains in critical areas, who would be a friend and who would be a foe of black students and families?

To this point in time, black communities have been asked to trade the hiring of qualified, capable black teachers for a promise of increased test scores. The state pressured the New Orleans School District to dissolve a collective bargaining agreement with United Teachers of New Orleans, only a few years later to adopt thick agreements with Teach for America. Black communities statewide have been asked to accept union membership for status quo education policy. Black folk are to shout to the heavens for school choice and accept a lottery. These are all false dichotomies and inconsistencies that reflect our allegiances to organizations and ideologies rather than a black community.

Even the public vs. private school debate rings hallows. The advancement of strong public system should be a chief agenda item for black communities. In New Orleans as it is nationally, the overwhelming majority of black and Latino children attend public schools. Consequently, black and brown communities need to see themselves as primary benefactors of public education policy.

However, the communities need quality, black and brown private institutions that are more than an “escape” from the publics. Yes, black and Latino history and culture may be better attended to in private institutions. Yes, we do need to see education as industry, which has multiple social and financial benefits for ethnic and racial communities. My criticisms of BAEO and in particular their voucher policies is that vouchers primarily subsidize non-black schools for which families have many better public options.

Nevertheless, a conversation on educational progress in New Orleans should be framed to empower black communities. For instance, the question: Are charter schools working? should be reframed and restated to: How do charter schools move more black families in the middle class? Are more low-income charter students graduating from college? What sectors are high-achieving black college graduates finding better career opportunities? What schools maintain socioeconomic diversity and high educational outcomes? How have changes in governance increased black families’ political voice and participation?

I’m confident the black community has authentic allies in education who have found the kind of solutions that don’t take decades to build capacity. The BAEO Town Hall will pursue those. I’m certain a critical lens will magnify people and camps from across the political spectrum. Having “crossed the aisles” enough times, I know that privilege looks the same regardless of camp whether neo-liberal, market-driven, conservative, traditional or union driven. I’ve also learned that an us vs. them framework seldom serves poor people of color – remember the people we’re supposed to be helping in New Orleans.

Dr. Andre Perry (@andreperryedu), founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

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