Pain, Anger, and Confusion at the NAACP Hearing on Quality Education in New Orleans

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The NAACP’s nation-touring ‘education task force‘ recently held their penultimate (6th of 7) hearing on quality education in New Orleans. The hearing, which took place on April 6th in the City Council Chambers, ended up serving as a venting session for a community that is clearly hurting and seemed ready to pounce on the historic civil rights organization’s education panel.

Alice Huffman on the Education Task Force

Following the NAACP’s highly divisive call for a moratorium on charter schools, the education task force was assembled to tour the country and “take a deep look at the issues facing public schools, as well as the pros and cons of charter schools”. Alice Huffman, chair of the task force, noted that following the final stop in New York, the national body would be reviewing all the information gathered and putting forth a document they hope will guide policy around charter schools.

Like previous stops in New Haven, Memphis, Orlando, Los Angeles, and Detroit, the city of New Orleans would provide a unique landscape for the education panel to survey, provided they were willing to analyze the history, data and facts objectively. No doubt NOLA was picked because of its one-of-a-kind system in which the entire district is nearly all charter.

The Crescent City hearing followed a similar arc as the others, with a majority of the time spent alternating between testimony of “experts” making their case for and against the NAACP’s moratorium. The “for” speakers (meaning anti-charter) included state rep Joseph Bouie, Loyola University law professor Bill Quigly, Attorney Willie Zanders, Walter Umrani of the ‘New Orleans Peacekeepers, and Adrienne Dixon who was listed as speaking for the American Federation of Teachers, but clarified that was a mistake, as she was speaking on her own behalf (oops!).

Those against the motion included charter schools leaders Niloy Gangopadhyay of Success Preparatory Academy, Jamar McKneely of Inspire Schools, and Kate Mehok of Crescent City Schools. Orleans Parish School Board member John Brown was listed as a speaker, but didn’t end up giving testimony.

The presentation portion of the hearing would go more or less the same as at all the other stops, with the “for” speakers warning of the dangers of privatization, decrying what they see as the nefarious practices of charters, and answering the same questions about “creaming”, discipline, and segregation that the task members have asked at each stop.

Like in the other cities, local charter school leaders highlighted their track records of success, and asked the board to not throw the baby out with the bath water, seeing the moratorium as generalizing, reactionary and unnecessary when some charters are finding such a high level of success with marginalized students.

But, the most important and emotional point of the forum would come when a group of students took over the floor, and in turn the meeting. The young speakers spoke passionately about the lack of resources, support, and in some cases, teachers at their school. They highlighted shoddy school conditions and the self-doubt they feel from their educators’ lack of belief in their abilities. They spoke out against arbitrary cutoffs for measuring their success and decried counselors and leaders who aren’t putting them in situations to succeed.

This stakeholder takeover of the forum, something that has been missing from some of the other stops, showcased the pain and frustration of the community. It also caused confusion, as it seemed many community members had come to air grievances with the local chapter of the NAACP, rather than the national body the task force represented.

Things got testy when parents and students called out their local chapter for not responding to calls for help and not being in their schools to see what’s really going on. The task force, seemingly unhappy to be called out, wanted the audience to know that most of the organization is made up of volunteers and that they couldn’t possibly get back to everyone.

Questioned on how she could support charter schools, by the students and heavily anti-charter audience, task force head Alice Huffman was irate. “I wrote the resolution calling for this moratorium”. Lost in the justifiable anger of the students and parents, were a few things. The taskforce was in fact calling out charter schools, and has lost most of its pretense of holding unbiased, objective hearings (“I would close them all if I could” -Alice Huffman) and the horror story shared by the students was that of a TRADITIONAL district school, one of the only five remaining in NOLA. Unfortunately, it’s not clear if the task force left understanding the distinction.

Watch a portion of the public comment period at the hearing below, or follow us @EdCitizen (and the hashtag #NAACPHearing) on Twitter for more coverage of the quality education hearing.

What do parents think about sending NOLA charter schools to the OPSB?

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As a parent who regularly speaks with other parents and individuals about education in New Orleans I can tell you we have questions and concerns about a bill recently passed to transfer NOLA charter schools from the Recovery School District to the Orleans Parish School Board.

It looks like the community is galvanized around bringing the schools under local control. Groups of leaders and parents seem to agree, I believe for it to be successful there needs to be more voices in the room. I am always concerned about the most vulnerable individuals in our society being represented at the table and being heard. The group that will be most affected by the transfer from one authority, the RSD, to another, the OPSB, are the nearly 90% of the city’s children that makeup the charter school’s student body.

Has anyone asked them or their families what they think? If so, what were the results? What are the top concerns raised and how have they been addressed?

To tell the truth, nobody asked me. I’ve got kids in these schools. I’ve got skin in the game. Parents like me should have a say too, right?

The Bill (SB 432) that will become law should concern parents. The bill requires all schools to participate in the parish-wide enrollment system (One App) and student expulsion process. This has been a challenge that took the RSD time to iron out. Does the OPSB have the capacity to prevent the system from splitting up families, and sending children across town? Is OPSB capable of making the necessary changes that will make the choice of a school less of a chore for the cities families?

The student expulsion process and suspension rates in our school system have also been under scrutiny. Will this issue improve under the OPSB? Parents who have had multiple bad experiences want a better system, a system that doesn’t merely hand down punitive action to our children but a system that gives positive reinforcements that will build children’s confidence and teach them life skills. No one has said that changing overseers of charter schools will get us a better system of discipline, and that’s a problem. While “governance” is an important issue, we need leaders who think about the ground level too.

I recently attended a forum that featured some of the major educational players who took part in several committees that helped shape SB 432. The forum was hosted by the 100 Black Men of Greater New Orleans led by President Jonathan Wilson. Their coalition includes Total Community Action (TCA), The Orleans Public Education Network (OPEN), Inspire NOLA Charter Group, New Orleans College Prep Charter Schools, The Orchid Society, The National Coalition of 100 Black Women, The Alliance for Diversity and Excellence and the Alliance for Citizen engagement. To their credit they have drafted a list of five basic principles for unification:

  • Sovereignty of local control – Decision making at the local level
  • Close equity gaps – Fair distribution of MFP funds
  • System efficacy and accountability – Accountability of people for educational outcomes and their use of funds
  • Data transparency and integrity – Public access to information and clear consequences for abuse
  • Safe and secure learning environments – Quality facilities conducive to teaching and learning

These are reasonable principles. I’m glad we have good people working on our behalf. That said we have to be real and admit passing a bill, law or policy isn’t going to be the end all, be all.

I want to believe this strong coalition of citizens groups and educators are prepared for the challenge of governing schools. They have tried to lay out their expectations from the next school board that will be elected in November, and what will be expected from the Superintendent of the OPSB.

In the future I would like to see more parent involvement in these efforts, but for now I know it will be our responsibility as citizens to hold our elected officials accountable to our needs. In the end governance should happen only for one reason, to make things better for our most vulnerable citizens.

Our struggle is for children, our future, our responsibility.

Lamont Douglas is a NOLA parent and education activist who led a successful campaign to change the leadership of his child’s elementary school. He blogs at Second Line Blog.