Monday, August 29, 2016

Thoughts on the 11th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

New Orleans family waits to be rescued. 

On this date 11 years ago, the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina, hit the Gulf Coast, leaving more than 2,000 dead and thousands more homeless or displaced in its wake. But as Chicago poet Roger Bonair-Agard @rogerbonair tweets, "The tragedy only began with the hurricane."

He's right. What followed was not so much a tragedy -- as caused by the gods in Greek drama -- but rather a manmade disaster, still being felt, especially in the poorest black communities in Louisiana and Mississippi. For more on this, see Gary Rivlin's excellent N.Y.T. Magazine piece, "Why New Orleans’s Black Residents Are Still Underwater After Katrina".

However, not everyone saw it as disaster, or at least not entirely. Univ. of Chicago free-market economist Milton Friedman said of Katrina:
"This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system". 
His statement was immediately taken as a call for groups of ed-entrepreneurs to flock to New Orleans where charters for publicly-financed, privately-run schools were being handed out to all comers. Shades of the California gold rush of 1850.

The ed-privateers came to town on the heels of the mass firing of every teacher in the city, basically wiping out the largest sector of the city's black middle class. Next came the de-certification of UTNO the first integrated teachers' union in Louisiana

Their dream was to replace the storm-battered, public school system, which had educated generations of New Orleanians since the city's public school system was founded in 1870, during the Reconstruction Period, with networks of non-union, privately-run charters.

It's worth noting that for the first seven years under the Reconstruction government, the public schools were racially integrated. I bring this up in response to those who claim that racial desegregation is "too difficult" or those who claim they want to "take politics out of education." More on that below.

Then Sec. of Education Arne Duncan took Friedman's meme and ran with it. telling interviewer Roland Martin:
I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and this is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.
An embarrassed Pres. Obama forced Duncan to walk back his racist remarks and he did. Duncan told TV host Joe Scarborough that the remarks were a "dumb" thing to say and that he had expressed them in a "poor way."

Friedman's and Duncan's sentiments have been echoed in recent months here in Chicago. Tribune columnist and editorial board member, Kristen McQueary @StatehouseChick wrote,
"Hurricane Katrina gave a great American city a rebirth." 
And then this:
I find myself wishing for a storm in Chicago — an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops. That's what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans. Chaos. Tragedy. Heartbreak.
Yes, the great storm has been the battle cry for top-down reformers and disaster capitalists everywhere, a rationale for the most gross anti-democratic putsches, seizures of power and school takeovers from Louisiana to Michigan. They are all justified in the name of efficiency and product quality.

I was reminded of this, this morning when Duncan's former assistant at the D.O.E., Peter Cunningham @PCunningham57, posted this.

Cunningham has lately been on the attack against what he and fellow reformers call "local control", meaning popularly-elected local school boards which he fears could undermine systems of top-down authority and "accountability" imposed on schools. Examples of these top-down accountability systems include, Duncan's Race To The Top, mayoral control of the schools in Chicago, or Gov. Snyder's state takeover of schools and entire elected local governments in Michigan.

He even blames this country's legacy of public school segregation on "local control" and then asks the question: "Is School Integration Necessary?,

I'll deal with that one more in coming posts. But Patrick Dobard, who succeeded Paul Vallas as superintendent to the Recovery School District in New Orleans, takes off and runs with Cunningham's anti-local control theme. He calls local control, "the rallying cry for many folks on all sides of education debates, from Tea Party libertarians to Bernie Sanders progressives."

Funny, I haven't heard this rallying cry from either of those sides. The closest to a rallying cry I've heard is from 90-something percent of Chicagoans who come out and vote regularly for an elected school board to replace Mayor Rahm Emanuel's autocratic rule over the schools.

If that's what they mean by local control--yes, bring it on.

Dobard claims that local control is "political" (meaning elections) and overriding local parents and teachers can be justified when it produces "quality schools."
The risk, of course, is that a newly elected school board will default to many of the same practices that produced one of the most troubled school systems in America prior to 2005, rife with corruption, instability and academic stagnation.
Have the hundreds of charter school corruption and financial mismanagement stories blown right past him? Maybe watching John Oliver's charter school takedown might help him back down to earth.

But what I really take issue with is what I would call the Dobard Rationale -- that the raison d'etre for public education is efficiency or "high quality schools" outside of any political or social context. I'll credit Dobard with what appears to be, a (self?) criticism of top-down reformers.
Shortly after the 10th anniversary of Katrina, several of us started to work together on the governance question. Our goal was to avoid the mistakes of the early reform movement where change was more often done “to” people rather than “with” people. Our larger goal was to keep New Orleans on track to excellence.
But his (their) goal now seems simply to "redefine local control" so that an elected board is powerless when it comes to challenging the reformers' control over the schools.

I think Doubard's got it backwards or maybe inside-out. The road to "excellence" can only be traveled with the people. Excellence and school quality are not "larger goals," abstract entities that can be done TO people.

Democracy necessitates that public schools educate students as future participatory members of that society. Overriding participatory democracy in the name of "quality" is to deny both quality and democracy. And that principle cannot be washed away by a storm.

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