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An Important New Book About New Orleans and Its Schools

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Three scholars have recently published a very informative book about the history of education in New Orleans. The authors tell this story by scrutinizing one very important elementary school in the city, the one that was first to be desegregated with one black student in 1960. The book is titled William Frantz Public School: A Story of Race, Resistance, Resiliency, and Recovery in New Orleans (Peter Lang). The authors are Connie L. Schaffer, Meg White, and Martha Graham Viator.

This is the school that enrolled 6-year-old Ruby Bridges in November 1960. Her entry to the school each day, a tiny little girl accompanied by federal agents, was met with howling, angry white parents. Her admission to an all-white school in New Orleans was a landmark in the fight to implement the Brown v. Board decision of 1954. It was immortalized by Norman Rockwell in a famous painting called The Problem We All Live With.

The authors set the stage for their history by pointing out that the Reconstruction-era constitution of Louisiana forbade racially segregated schools. In the early 1870s, about one-third of the public schools in New Orleans were racially integrated. Some schools had racially integrated teaching staffs. School board members were both white and black. When Reconstruction ended, rigid racial segregation and white supremacy were restored.

The William Frantz Public School opened in 1938 as a school for white children. It occupied almost a full city block.It was one of the few schools built during the Depression. It was built to accommodate 570 children. The authors demonstrate the vast inequality between white schools and black schools. Not far away was a school for black children of elementary age. Not only were black schools overcrowded, but black neighborhoods had problems with poorly maintained sewers, streets, sidewalks, gas and water lines, and structurally unsound buildings. Black schools were dilapidated, students shared desks, and class sizes were often in excess of 60 children to one teacher. Black students had fewer instructional hours than white students, due to overcrowding. White teachers were paid more than black teachers.

Black citizens of New Orleans were outraged by these conditions but they were politically powerless. The white power structure did not care about the education of black children.

Then came the Brown decision of 1954, which declared the policy of “separate but equal” to be unjust. The federal courts moved slowly to implement desegregation, but eventually they began to enforce it. The federal district judge who took charge of desegregation in New Orleans was J. Shelley Wright, a graduate of the city’s white schools. He determined to implement the Brown decision, despite the opposition of the Governor, the Legislature, the Mayor, and prominent white citizens of the city, as well as White Citizens Councils.

In 1958, the Louisiana legislature passed several measures to weaken desegregation efforts including laws allowing the governor to close any school that desegregated, providing state funds to any students seeking to leave the traditional public schools, and granting the state sweeping power to control all schools.

Their well-written history brings the reader to the present, to the all-charter model that privatizers hold up as an exemplar for every urban district troubled by low test scores and white flight.

The section of the book that I found most interesting was their detailed account of the white reaction to the prospect of school integration, despite the fact that the black students who applied to attend white schools were carefully screened for their academic potential and their behavior. Ruby Bridges was the one and only student chosen to start desegregation. Crowds gathered every morning to spit and scream. They harassed not only Ruby, with her federal protection, but any white student who dared to enter the school. Their blockade eventually forced whites to abandon the William Franz Public School. A few persisted, but little Ruby never met them. She was assigned to a classroom with no other students and one teacher.

The whites who tried to stay in the school were subject to threats of violence. Some lost their jobs, as did Ruby’s father. They feared for their lives. The hatred for blacks by whites was explosive. The portrayal of malignant racism is searing.

A relatively small number of whites tried to calm the situation. One such group was called Save Our Schools. They reached out to the white parents of the school, trying to bring peace and reconciliation.

In perhaps the most disturbing response to an SOS mailing, a WFPS parent who had received a letter from SOS returned the letter smeared with feces. A handwritten comment on the letter stated the parent would rather have ignorant children then to send them to a “nigger school.”

The mob won. By the middle of the school year, fewer than 10 white students remained in the school, and they too needed protection. By 1993, not one white student attended the school.

As the tumult continued after Ruby’s admission, prominent whites funded private schools so that white students could escape the specter of desegregation. The Legislature passed laws to support the resistance to desegregation and to give vouchers to whites fleeing the public schools and to underwrite the private academies where racist white students enrolled.

When the battle over desegregation began, New Orleans schools enrolled a white majority. Racism led to white flight, and before long the school district was overwhelmingly black, as was the city.

The authors detail the problems of the district. Not only was it segregated and underfunded, but its leadership was unstable. The management was frequently incompetent and corrupt. Its accounting department was a mess. So was Human Resources. Teachers were not paid on time. The management was woeful. The state wanted to take control of the district before Hurricane Katrina. Three months before the disastrous hurricane, the state leaned on the district to hire a corporate restructuring firm at a cost of $16.8 million.

In June, the Louisiana Department of Education and the Orleans Parish School Board signed an agreement relinquishing the management of the district’s multi-million dollar operating budget to the state. As a result, the district entered into negotiations with a New York turnaround management corporation, Alvarez and Marsal, to oversee its finances. In the contract, the board not only surrendered financial control, it also granted the firm authority to hire and fire employees.

Alvarez & Marsal put one of its senior partners, Bill Roberti, in charge of the district. Before joining the management consultants, Roberti had run the clothing store Brooks Brothers. A&M had previously received $5 million for a year of controlling the St. Louis school district, which was not “turned around,” and collected $15 million for reorganizing New York City’s school bus routes, with poor results (some children were stranded for long periods of time, waiting for buses on the coldest day of the year).

Before the hurricane, the state created the Recovery School District (in 2003) to take control of failing schools. In 2004, it passed Act 9, which allowed the state to take over schools with an academic score of 60 or less and hand them over to charter operators. After the hurricane, the Legislature passed Act 35, which changed the criteria for takeover and paved the way for the Recovery School District to take charge of most of the city’s public schools. Parents got “choice,” but the new charter schools created their own admissions policies, and most did the choosing.

Prior to Act 35, schools with School Performance Scores below 60 were considered to be in academic crisis. Act 35 raised the threshold score to 87.5, virtually ensuring every school in Orleans Parish would be deemed in academic crisis, and therefore, eligible for takeover by the Recovery District…Act 35 achieved what Governor Davis, Leander Perez, and segregationists failed to do in 1960. Act 35, for all intents and purposes, allowed the State of Louisiana to seize control of the Orleans Parish school district…The takeover of the failing schools within Orleans Parish made the Recovery District the largest school district in the State of Louisiana. Had the threshold for the School Performance Score not been raised in Act 35, the Recovery District would have taken over only 13 schools and had a much reduced presence and influence in public education in New Orleans.

After the hurricane, district officials and Alvarez & Marsal issued a diktat permanently terminating the jobs and benefits of more than 7,500 teachers and other staff.

Sixteen years since Hurricane Katrina and the privatization of public schools in New Orleans, the debate about the consequences continues, as it surely will for many more years.

For those interested in New Orleans, I recommend this book, along with Raynard Sanders’ The Coup d’Etat of the New Orleans Public Schools: Money, Power, and the Illegal Takeover of a Public School System, Kristen Buras’ Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance. For a favorable view of the charter takeover, read Douglas Harris’s Charter School City: What the End of Traditional Public Schools in New Orleans Means for American Education.

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