Bumps and bruises for education in New Orleans

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SHARELINES

Two headlines coming out of New Orleans should disturb that city’s education guardians.

The first headline, “Flagrant special ed violations, cover-up alleged at New Orleans charter Lagniappe,” involves a charter school that will be closing because evidence of cheating and fraud have surfaced.

The second headline, “Orleans Parish School Board member Ira Thomas charged in bribery scheme,” is yet another installment in the long and tiring history of pay-to-play governance in the Big Easy.

Both stories will try the patience of a weary city whose population has been through gross collective trauma in the last decade. A significant contributor to that pain has been a system of schools that often seems like no system at all.

In the case of Lagniappe, the charter school, the resolution seems hopeful.

Almost two years ago leaders in that school were trumpeting academic success so great it would lift them from grade F to a grade A school.

A recent report reveals a different story.

It suggests the school asked for an especially large number of special education accommodations for standardized testing of students, lied about providing services for special education students, and attempted to discard unwanted students through administrative fiat. The charges read like a greatest hits of all the usual criticisms lobbed at charter schools.

In this case the claims appear to be true and allowing a school like that to persists is just bad business.

While many districts nationally watch the New Orleans’ “experiment” with radical school change,  many NOLA parents are still skeptical and often frustrated. When there are problems like Lagniappe education leaders must be straight up. They must be decisive, transparent, and reparative.

That doesn’t mean it won’t hurt.

It will.

School closings dog education leaders. Handle it wrong and parents will circle the building in anger, hot about the decision to close their school. Then the professional activists who make a living and a name exploiting every opportunity to sock it to the RSD will make it to the scene faster than Spiderman. Their weathered tactic is to leave no parent anger behind. Use it all for theater and politics.

Still, adults in the room have to put on their big people pants and do the damn thing.

It is always hard to close a school no matter how many facts support the decision. Students are displaced and parents are upset, but do you leave open a harmful school out of fear and political efficiency, or do you close it to protect kids and preserve the integrity of the school system?

I choose the latter.

While I think the RSD can improve in numerous ways, lets applaud them in this case for being one governing body over New Orleans public schools that won’t tolerate the shortchanging of kids.

As for local control

I wish the same could be said for the Orleans Parish School Board. I see the legal woes of their board member, Ira Thomas, very differently.

Talking to people in New Orleans they are rightfully tired of the question school reformers love to ask: “are the schools better than they were before Katrina.

It’s been 10 years and folks are sick of the comparison between then and now because it feels like a trick to keep attention on how bad and corrupt things were before Katrina, and how awesome they are supposed to be now that legions of valiant migrants have arrived to save the people from themselves.

The world has changed so much that the question seems moot. Some for the change has been an improvement, some of it has not.

My heart is with the champions of public schools run by New Orleanians. Schools should be local, personal, and accountable. I believe the city of New Orleans can – and must – produce its own educational leaders.

Which is why it feels like a supreme betrayal when members of New Orleans’ democratically elected school board fail to model what great self-governance might look like.

The OPSB’s tagline boasts “our job is building the future.” That can’t be true so long as they keep jogging in the spoiled canals of the past. Why would a sitting school board member be accused of taking petty bribes in amounts so pitiful if it weren’t simply business as usual?

If this were a first offense for the board we could check it and move on. But this isn’t an outlying hiccup. A few years ago Ellenese Brooks-Simms, another OPSB president, was convicted of fraud in a case that yielded kickbacks for her and a $900,000 contract for a business associate.

Don’t even talk about the board’s seemingly incurable infighting and politicization of nearly every issue that is a paralyzing, dispiriting embarrassment.

If they want to be a proof point of how a renewed New Orleans could operate schools with hometown leadership, having elected officials continue the historic pattern of corruption and squabbling isn’t a workable strategy.

A better future is possible

When thinking of the future of public education in New Orleans oversight is king. That oversight should – in every way possible – prevent situations like Lagniappe from happening, and be consistent in dropping the hammer on other schools when they’re that dirty.

Critics of school reform say the RSD is making an example of this one school for bad actions other schools are guilt of too. We shouldn’t object to making an example of a school doing hurtful things to vulnerable children. We should have a problem if the same troubles aren’t being addressed in other schools.

As for the OPSB, everyone would benefit if they cleaned up their act and stopped supporting the nefarious idea that dysfunction and crime are inevitable when New Orleanians run New Orleans.

If the OPSB can’t be a good partner in the aspiration to gain indigenous rule of public schools, I weep for the soul of a beautifully tattered city and the minds of its children.

Citizen Stewart

Written by: Citizen Stewart

Evangelical. Husband. Father. Education Activist.