In May, a national coalition that includes the Journey For Justice Alliance (J4J), the Advancement Project, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the National Education Association (NEA), filed a civil rights complaint [see full text of complaint below] alleging that the Recovery School District’s school closure policy “provides circumstantial evidence of intentional discrimination” against African-American students. The complaint seeks to stop the RSD from closing its remaining direct-run schools, to establish a moratorium on charter school renewals and conversions, and to reestablish traditional neighborhood schools across New Orleans.
Defenders of the Recovery School District point to the involvement of AFT and NEA, as well as the fact that the complaint was filed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, as evidence that the filing is a publicity stunt aimed at discrediting the progress of New Orleans’ public schools. Louisiana State Superintendent John White was even more explicit in an interview with the Times-Picayune, saying, “The report, from a factual perspective, is a joke.” He continued:
“It is a nationally coordinated campaign to achieve political objectives, dominated by and driven by national teacher unions and other political interests (that) are doing this for everything to do with politics and nothing to do with children.”
Confused Logic and Misplaced Blame
As noted by White, a close reading of the recent complaint reveals an unconvincing, and at times, contradictory argument in making the case that the Recovery School District (RSD) discriminates against African-American students. To start, the complaint asserts that the closure of the RSD’s five remaining direct-run schools is discriminatory by virtue of the fact that the students in those schools are almost all African-American.
Apparently the complaint’s authors were unaware that a federal judge rejected that very same argument in a case in Washington, D.C. last year, in which a local activist group sought an injunction against District of Columbia Public Schools to block the closure of 15 under-enrolled and underperforming schools. Plaintiffs claimed the closures amounted to a civil rights violation because the schools slated for closure served overwhelmingly African-American and Hispanic student populations.
In his opinion dismissing the suit, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg lambasted the plantiffs’ position, pointing out the irony that an effort move students out of failing schools would be construed as discriminatory:
“In this case, there is no evidence whatsoever of any intent to discriminate on the part of Defendants, who are actually transferring children out of weaker, more segregated, and under-enrolled schools. The remedy Plaintiffs seek – i.e., to remain in such schools – seems curious, given that these are the conditions most people typically endeavor to escape.”
The Journey For Justice Alliance’s complaint also maintains that the admissions policies of a handful of the the city’s highest-achieving schools are designed to exclude African-American students, but it lays the blame for the problem at the feet of the wrong party.
The highest-performing – i.e., selective-admissions – public schools in New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina were exempt from the RSD’s takeover in November 2005. With the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) in shambles in the aftermath of the storm, many of these schools seized the opportunity to reopen as OPSB charters, while retaining their selective-admissions policies. As a result, they have continued to draw a disproportionate number of their students from a demographic that has otherwise been largely absent from the public school system: white, middle-class families.
These nine high-performing, selective-admissions OPSB charters have also refused to participate in OneApp, the RSD-run citywide enrollment system established to ensure that all families have a fair shot in the application process. While every school in the RSD is required to use OneApp, this subset of elite OPSB charters have chosen to retain their separate admissions processes, in spite of entreaties by both RSD officials and prominent reform advocates to join the citywide enrollment system.
The J4J coalition maintains these schools have spurned OneApp in an effort to exclude low-income and minority families who may not have the knowledge or wherewithal to navigate the various admissions processes. As OPSB-sanctioned charters, the RSD cannot legally compel these schools to join OneApp, and the school board has refused to require them to participate until their charters are renewed, which in some cases won’t happen until 2021. Nevertheless, the coalition’s complaint illogically blames the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) and RSD – not the Orleans Parish School Board – for the current state of affairs. As Superintendent White pointed out:
“It is high irony that you criticize the people who have tried to create an open-enrollment policy across all schools and have only failed to get the most privileged schools.”
RSD Critics Suddenly Change Their Tune
The coalition’s filing also signals a shift in the tactics and rhetoric of reform opponents, changes which in some cases directly contradict their earlier positions. For instance, one of the long-standing criticisms raised by opponents such as Tulane University’s Lance Hill, is that the RSD takeover created a two-tiered system of public schools in New Orleans between charter schools and those directly-run by the RSD [see video below]. They argued that while some students may getting a better education in the city’s charters, the RSD’s direct-run schools had, in effect, become a “dumping ground” for students who couldn’t cut it the city’s charter schools.
Until recently, Karran Harper Royal, a local activist who is one of the signatories to the complaint, also attacked the RSD’s direct-run schools. In an interview with Louisiana Public Broadcasting last September, Royal claimed that RSD charters outperformed direct-run schools because the most challenging students were relegated to the latter:
“Those are the schools kids go to if they can’t get into a charter school. So, if you’re really taking the lower performing kids who can’t get into other schools, it only stands to reason that the charter schools are going to outperform the traditional schools.”
After years of decrying the district’s direct-run schools, one would expect reform critics to applaud the RSD for closing schools where, in Hill’s words, “no learning happens whatsoever.” However, once RSD announced its plan to close those schools – thereby eliminating the “dumping ground” argument – the anti-reform “party line” suddenly changed, and those same critics are now clamoring to keep the RSD’s direct-run schools open.
The Role of Teachers Unions & the Threat of a Good Example
As for John White’s accusation that the Journey For Justice civil rights complaint is part of a “nationally coordinated campaign…dominated by and driven by national teacher unions” circumstantial evidence would seem to support the claim. For example, on the same day it filed its complaint against the RSD and LDOE, the coalition also filed civil rights complaints against the Chicago and Newark school systems, two districts currently engaged in fierce battles with AFT-affiliated teachers unions.
And while Karren Harper Royal vehemently denies that unions were behind the recent complaint, she recently revealed J4J’s close relationship with the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO, again an AFT-affiliate) in an interview with Rethinking Schools :
“I’m very close to the United Teachers of New Orleans…I’m part of a coalition that meets over at the union office: the Coalition for Community Schools-NOLA. We participated in protests and many, many meetings with the school district about ways to keep schools as community schools rather than becoming charter schools. We’re currently involved in the Journey for Justice Listening Project.”
Furthermore, there’s AFT’s rather conspicuous presence at Journey For Justice Alliance events, including a rally in support of the complaints in Washington, D.C. attended by none other than AFT President Randi Weingarten.
But why would a national teachers union like the American Federation of Teachers want to discredit New Orleans public schools? It could have something to do with the fact that the RSD’s takeover had a devastating effect on UNTO, which was once the largest and most powerful AFT local in the state. The union, which had over 5000 members prior to the storm, saw its ranks plummet to as low as 300 within a year. Moreover, UTNO’s periodic efforts to reassert itself over the years have fizzled; the Orleans Parish School Board rejected a collective bargaining agreement with the union in 20081 and recruitment efforts at charter schools in the city2 have made little headway.
However, it’s more likely that New Orleans was targeted because the city’s post-Katrina school system poses – to borrow a phrase from Noam Chomsky – “the threat of a good example.” Although skeptics still condescendingly refer to the city’s public education system as “an experiment,” after nearly a decade of steadily rising test scores, graduation rates, and college acceptance numbers, it has become harder and harder to argue that the gains are anything but real. The experimental phase is over; the paradigm has shifted.
What New Orleans has shown is that real, sustained academic improvement is possible, even in large urban districts beset by decades of failure. The key is dismantling monolithic school system bureaucracies that too often focus on the prerogatives of entrenched interests – be they politicians, district administrators, vendors, or teachers unions – rather than the needs of students and families. Over the years, states and districts across the country [see: Tennessee’s ASD, Michigan’s EEA, Virginia’s OEI, etc.] have sought to follow New Orleans’ example and therein lies the threat.
From this perspective, the recent civil rights complaint can be seen as a part of a cynical shift in strategy by reform opponents. Unable to explain away the overwhelming evidence that the post-Katrina school system is working, anti-reformers are instead simply attempting to portray the reforms in a racially divisive light. When the complaints were filed, Karran Harper Royal proclaimed that the RSD’s efforts represent “the new Jim Crow.” Of course, if anything, low-income and minority students have been the prime beneficiaries of the improvements in New Orleans schools. Then again, whether the Journey For Justice Alliance is working for the unions or not, one thing has never been in doubt: they’re not working for children.
- While Louisiana law permits collective bargaining by teachers, school districts are not required to enter into collective bargaining agreements. ↩
- However, the staff at Ben Franklin High School, which ironically is one of the schools that has refused to participate in OneApp, recently voted to join UTNO. ↩