Filed Under:  Education, Local, News

Public education post-Katrina was topic of discussion at Black journalists confab

25th June 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Mason Harrison
Contributing Writer

The state of public education in post-Katrina New Orleans was the topic of discussion at a June 19 forum at Dillard University sponsored by local and national Black journalist groups; the Orleans Parish Place Matters initiative; and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based research and policy institute. The forum featured a panel discussion by area education experts and presented sobering statistics on the impact demographics can have on accessing a quality education.

Held in conjunction with the National Association of Black Journalists annual convention in New Orleans this week, the forum, entitled “Reforming Education in Post-Katrina Louisiana,” enlisted Dr. Lance Hill, of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University, Kira Orange Jones, a member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), Eric Lewis, state director of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), and Karran Harper Royal, a local education rights advocate, to discuss the effect recent education reforms have had on the city’s students and parents.

To preface the discussion, Dr. Andre Perry of Loyola University and head of the local Place Matters research initiative, revealed findings, aided by data from the Joint Center, showing that in some of the city’s poorest zip codes the life expectancy for residents is 25 years lower than that of residents living in more affluent neighborhoods. In some cases, that amounts to a number of New Orleanians living until they are about 55 years old while other residents live long enough to become octogenarians.

Higher rates of mortality from heart disease and other ailments like strokes also correlate with geographic location in Orleans Parish and “[t]he lowest levels of educational achievement” are likewise linked to living in low-income areas of the city, according to figures released from the collaborative work of the Joint Center and its hyperlocal research program, Place Matters. Perry noted that, in light of the findings, “We don’t need anymore talk that doesn’t lead to action – people are dying.”

With that as their backdrop, the panelists began to flesh out ways to boost student performance despite the array of environmental challenges facing the city’s pupils.

Hill honed in on what he lambasted as the secretive and undemocratic nature of the local charter school network, charging, “There is more information on the back of a can of beans than there is [available] on these schools,” adding, “The BESE board must demand full disclosure,” referring to the financial and operations mechanisms of some schools.

Hill contended that improved disclosure would go a long way toward ensuring that students’ needs are satisfied and allow for the creation of strategies to help interdict school closings. Ultimately, however, Hill argued for allowing teachers and parents to run charter schools and for the elimination of the corporatization of public education.

Lewis offered a defense of the charter network and cited recent figures pointing to an uptick in student performance as evidence of the value of the new system of education in New Orleans: “The New Orleans school district was at one time the worst in the state and in the nation. This year Orleans Parish will surpass East Baton Rouge Parish in school performance.”

He also rejected the idea – supported by others on the panel – that the state’s education reforms are tantamount to a social experiment that disadvantages some of the city’s already underserved communities. When asked if the charter network has a disenfranchising effect on poor students and parents in New Orleans, Lewis said: “No.”

That response solicited hisses and boos from the audience and caused Hill to opine that the current state of education in New Orleans is not an experiment but the result of a conservative ideology that privileges free markets and business-to-business competition over collective efforts to execute public policy by way of governmental intervention.

“In an experiment,” Hill said, “you would test your hypothesis to see if it works and if it doesn’t then you’d abandon it,” adding, “This is not science; this is ideology, which makes it impervious to failure.” He also added that state test scores were on the rise prior to Hurricane Katrina and that, if left alone, the city’s students would have achieved academic success on par with current levels without the charter network overhaul and noted that, at present, an overwhelming majority – close to 80 percent – of Recovery School District schools are performing at D or F levels.

But Jones countered by noting, “Every D school in the system was once an F school” and asked her fellow panelists and audience members for patience as the system rights itself. She also pointed to data indicating that New Orleans is poised within the next few years to outpace every other community in the state in terms of reading and other areas of academic performance – a nationwide first for an urban community with the city’s demographics. “The truth is that students in New Orleans have a better chance of going to college today than they did ten years ago,” she added.

Lewis supported Jones’ stance and added that a survey conducted by his organization shows that 97 percent of Orleans Parish parents are satisfied with the state’s student voucher program and the appending system of school choice in New Orleans. The BAEO survey polled approximately 500 to 700 parents, according to Lewis.

Royal, however, amid additional disapproving groans from the audience following Lewis’ comments, said, “No one surveyed us before Katrina to ask us about how we felt about our schools and whether we liked them or wanted to change them.”

Royal noted that the lack of parental and community involvement in the changes to New Orleans’ education system has lead to the creation of an apparatus that is fraught with unaccountability and that when problems are discovered it only leads to the failure of schools.

“I’ve attended more school board meetings than school board members and served on every committee known to secondary education and I’d still like to know who said closing schools was an effective reform measure.”

This article was originally published in the June 25, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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