August 2005 changed the city of New Orleans forever. In the wake of the infamous and deadly Hurricane Katrina, one of America’s most beloved cities was devastated by the natural disaster, and further ravaged by a lack of response from both the federal and local governments, and inadequate levee system, which critics heralded as one of the greatest engineering disasters in nearly 20 years. The result, in addition to nearly 1,500 deaths, was mass displacement and lasting devastation, which has yet to be fully rectified, more than a decade later. Yet, though officials were slow to assist those need at the time of the event, what followed was unwanted oversight and control of the city’s most vulnerable population, under the guise of education reform.
Following the storm, the city of New Orleans adopted a public charter school system over the traditional public school system, and the change was in no way subtle. Instead, some 77 charter schools exist in the city today, compared to just 6 public schools. Hence, more than 90 percent of the students attend the former. The problem: these schools, though open to the public, with the word contained in their title, are independently run, resulting in a dramatic and wholly undemocratic shift in the schooling process.
Speaking on the changes in a post New Orleans Katrina, National Geographic described the system as “the single-most transformed institution in the city.” Nowhere else in the country has such a transformation taken place, even in cities like the nation’s capital, which has had its own history of troubles, questionable leadership, and considered one of the worst systems in the country, based on factors as such as dropout rate and college preparedness. To be clear, since the shift, New Orleans has increased graduation and proficiency in certain subjects for many of the students. However, even after more 10 years, the system lacks perfect results, and contains a spate of issues persist over which locals and stakeholders with the most to lose, students and their parents, have no say.
So, earlier this month, when the Washington Post released news that the governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, might sign a bill that would return school oversight and power to the locals–a democratically elected school board–many saw the move as a victory, a sign of restitution. Yet, upon further inspection, there’s a caveat. The board would still be left out of decisions regarding hiring, curriculum and instruction, and as I previously discussed, unions. Hence, the move is really just placation, a cover to quell the voiced anger of the constituency, which, it should be noted, is majority black, impoverished and historically underserved.
The danger in such is the precedent this system sets for the rest of the country, where the voices of communities are increasingly silenced. It is a threat to our democracy, and more, it is experimenting with something of vast importance, which will have lasting consequences, that will be near impossible to undo. To me and the people who are rightfully rallying against these proposals, this is about power and control than about truly seeking to help or better the community. And that is simply unacceptable.