Filed Under:  Education, Local, News

Groups file discrimination complaint with Dept. of Ed

28th May 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

As a parent, Karran Harper Royal was concerned as she watched her own son’s school get progressively whiter after Hurricane Katrina and the radical education “reform” that instantly followed.

As an education activist who has fought for equity in public schools for decades, Harper Royal was also concerned about the impacts she saw on community after community when their neighborhood school – their “cornerstones”—was closed.

As she continued to see increasingly disparate impacts of admission policies and closures on communities of color, Harper Royal wanted to make sure that at the very least the federal government was aware of what she observed to be troubling and systemic inequities.

A member of the national group Journey For Justice, Harper Royal and her local organization, Coalition for Community Schools, joined forces with another group, Conscious Concerned Citizens Controlling Community Changes, and its co-founder Frank Buckley. On May 13, they filed a complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the use of federal funds. The complaint was filed with the Education Opportunities Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Complaints by other groups, also part of Journey for Justice, were simultaneously filed in Newark, New Jersey, and Chicago during the week that marked the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

The introductory letter to the complaint regarding education in New Orleans “respectfully re­quests” an investigation into the “racially discriminatory school closings that are the subjects of these complaints.”

The complaint was filed against the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE), the Recovery School District (RSD), and the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).

The complaint continues: “By stealth, seizure and sabotage, these corporate profiteers are closing and privatizing our schools, keeping public education for children of color, not only separate, not only unequal, but increasingly not public at all. Adding insult to injury, the perpetrators of this injustice have cloaked themselves in the language of the Civil Rights Movement. But too many of the charter and privately-managed schools that have multiplied as replacements for our beloved neighborhood schools are test prep mills that promote prison-like environments, and seem to be geared at keeping young people of color controlled, undereducated, and dehumanized.”

The complaint begins with the history of the passage Act 35 just three months after Hurricane Katrina, which turned 107 schools over to the Recovery School District with the stated goal of meeting “the education needs of all students residing in the jurisdiction of the transferring school system.” According to the complaint: “This did not happen. What did happen was the implementation of the RSD’s real agenda to privatize public education by recklessly closing or converting all district-run schools.”

Since 2005, the state closed nearly 30 schools that served majority African-American students and communities, the complaint states. The five final traditional schools that the RSD will close this month are Benjamin Banneker Elementary School, A.P. Tureaud Elementary School, Walter L. Cohen High School, George Washington Carver High School, and Sarah T. Reed High School. Next fall, the RSD will become the first all-charter school district in the country.

According to the complaint: “African-American students comprise roughly 82 percent of all public school students in New Orleans, but are 96.64 percent of the students in the five schools slated to close. The white student population in the schools slated to close is less than .64 percent. Of the students impacted by these last five closures, approximately 1,000 are African-American students, and only approximately five are white students.”

The complaint then details how three of the five schools that are closing received passing scores for two years prior to the decision to close, and that “nearly all of the schools had shown consistent improvements in student performance.”

At Cohen, the 2011-2012 SPS score of 81.9 was higher than several schools that are not closing, the complaint points out. At Banneker, the school’s scores increased close to 15 percentage points in just three years. Carver and Reed saw increases of more than 10 percentage points from 2009-2012, according to the complaint, “double the statutorily required amount to prove recent improvements.” Only Tureaud experienced a decrease in their score in that time period – by a “miniscule” .4 percentage points.

The complaint points to several schools with higher than average white student populations that had low performance scores and/or fiscal mismanagement, but to which the RSD and BESE “turned a blind eye and allowed those schools to remain open.”

The complaint cites Inter­na­tional High School, a school with a significantly higher than average percentage of white students (25.7 percent white, 47.1 percent African American) but persistently low performance scores.

At Lycee Francais de Nouvelle-Orleans, (63 percent white, 14 percent African-American) the complaint alleges that the school does not enroll the required percentage of at-risk students as per state law, has been plagued with infighting and fiscal mismanagement, and the “LDOE has not given Lycee an SPS score for four years essentially granting them a waiver from state mandated academic assessments.”

Harper Royal said that she believes that the RSD intentionally starved their remaining schools of resources so that they could be easily chartered. “The goal of reform is not to improve schools but to create charters,” she said.

In a 2013 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, it was reported that in the 26 states participating in the study, accounting for 95 percent of the nation’s charter school students, researchers found that most charter schools are performing no better, if not worse, than their traditional school counterparts in reading and mathematics.

In addition to the claim that school closings disproportionately affect African Americans, the complaint also challenges “the state’s policy and practice of discriminating against African-American students by failing to provide adequate educational alternatives once their schools were closed.”

White students make up about 10 percent of the student population in New Orleans but about 40 percent of the population at most high-performing schools, the complaint contends.

While the OneApp enrollment system is designed to provide uniformity, the complaint points out that by allowing a handful of the city’s top-ranked schools to continue in their refusal to participate, OneApp instead becomes another tool of discrimination.

Schools with little or no oversight as to how they set their admissions standards are often criticized for cherry picking their students, and then celebrating their high marks. These selective admissions schools – and other “zero-tolerance” open enrollment charter schools – are also criticized for pushing kids out who they don’t think will perform well on standardized tests – the intensely myopic focus in many of New Orleans charter schools in terms of determining a child’s worth.

On May 14, the day after the Chicago, New Orleans, and Newark complaints were filed, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released an open letter regarding the legal obligations of charter schools.

“I am writing to remind you that the Federal civil rights laws, regulations, and guidance that apply to charter schools are the same as those that apply to other public schools,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon writes in the open letter. “For this reason, it is essential that charter school officials and staff be knowledgeable about Federal civil rights laws.”

Charter schools in New Orleans – the unprecedented experimental ground in privatization—have been oft-criticized for acting like private schools while taking millions in public funds, with little or no state oversight of their self-designed and directed policies.

Lhamon continues: “This letter does not attempt to summarize the entire body of Federal civil rights laws. Instead, it briefly addresses a few of the subjects that have arisen in the charter schools context: equal opportunity in admissions; provision of a free appropriate public education to students with disabilities; provision of services to English-language learners so that they can participate fully in their school’s educational program; and the non-discriminatory administration of discipline.”

Of admissions, Lhamon states, “As a general rule, a school’s eligibility criteria for admission must be nondiscriminatory on their face and must be applied in a nondiscriminatory manner.”

But while Harper Royal sees the (OCR) letter as validation of her concerns, Louisiana State Superintendent John White call­ed the civil rights complaint “a joke” in an interview with The Times-Picayune. “The report, from a factual perspective, is a joke,” White told The Times-Picayune.

White declined a request for an interview for this story to discuss the specific issues raised in the complaint – but the LDOE gave the following response: “Students in New Orleans, especially African-American students, have seen tremendous progress in the last eight years. Since 2006, the percentage of African-American students in the Recovery School District performing at grade level has more than doubled, increasing from 22 percent in 2006 to 57 percent in 2013. In the combined Orleans Parish schools and RSD New Orleans, the percentage of African-American students performing at grade level has nearly doubled, rising from 33 percent in 2006 to 60 percent in 2013. Schools in Orleans Parish are doing more than ever to assure the civil rights of students. This report is part of a national political campaign. It has more to do with politics than with children.”

Harper Royal said that she finds White’s dismissal of the complaint insulting. “As someone who has worked for decades to address education inequity in the city, he dismisses my role, and my lived experience in observing disparities,” she said.

The RSD and Superintendent Patrick Dobard also declined to give an interview, and provided the following emailed response:

“Over the last eight years, the schools in New Orleans have made tremendous progress by any academic measure—ACT scores, student achievement, graduation rate. In 2005, more than 60 percent of our students attended failing schools. Today only 5 percent of students city-wide attend failing schools. In New Orleans, the gap between student achievement in New Orleans and the state has decreased from 23 percentage points in 2007 to only six points in 2013. Our city’s graduates are even more qualified than ever before. In 2006 only 25 percent of our students qualified for TOPS and now 38 percent of students qualify for our state’s top academic award. It is critical to insist on the civil rights of every child, and there is no doubt New Orleans is closer to assuring those rights than it was a decade ago.”

Harper Royal doesn’t deny real gains for children, but she is skeptical of the state’s data.

But both Dobard and White have frequently come under fire for changing grading scales and shaping data to support their policies.

Regardless of the data presented by the state, “African American children don’t have access to high-quality schools equal to their white counterparts’ access,” Harper Royal maintains.

Harper Royal says that her motivations are not financial and do not have anything to do with unions. According to The Times-Picayune, White called the complaint a “political farce driven by national teachers unions trying to gain power and discredit a school system where they had little power.”

“What I get out of this is fixing things for other children that were not fixed for my family,” she said, of her brothers’ struggle for a high-quality education and the devastating consequences they faced later in life without that education.

Harper Royal calls White a corporate ideologue.

White was trained by the Broad Superintendents Academy — the school, founded by billionaire Eli Broad, is facing growing criticism “from people who see it as a destructive force in schools and districts,” according to a June 2011 article in Education Week. The article goes on to report that critics “say Broad-trained superintendents use corporate-management techniques to consolidate power, weaken teachers’ job protections, cut parents out of decision-making, and introduce unproven reform measures.”

Increasingly, the emerging privatized public education “market” is being viewed as an investment opportunity by hedge fund managers and the country’s wealthiest — and is estimated annually at $500 billion.

And in addition to the booming business for software manufacturers, testing companies, and other contracted services, if at the top, it can be a pretty lucrative career.

Many charter administrators, even of small, “non-profit” charter organizations, are pulling in six-figure salaries – amounts well beyond what was ever possible in traditional public school districts. Once just one district, New Orleans now has more than 40 independent districts, each with their own administrations to fund.

Both strong proponents of privatization, Dobard’s annual salary in 2013 was listed as just over $225,000, while White makes $275,000 annually. Neither was elected by the public.

The civil rights complaint concludes with recommendations, including halting the closure of the five schools, requiring that neighborhood public schools are evenly distributed across the city, and the implementation of the “Sustainable Schools Model,” that will include a needs assessment as well as the creation of a “collaborative process that engages parents, students, educators, and other communities to create locally designed school improvement.”

This article originally published in the May 26, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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