reports from a local parent monitoring public education in New Orleans

Entries for August, 2009

President Obama Has It Dangerously Wrong on Education

When choosing his Education Secretary, President Obama could have had Linda Darling-Hammond, a leading national expert on education policy.

Instead, he chose his basketball buddy from Chicago, Mr. Arne Duncan, who has never been an educator. In fact, Mr. Duncan is widely considered unqualified for his position. Duncan’s crony from Chicago, Mr. Paul Vallas, is the unqualified non-educator Superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD), which since Katrina operates most Orleans Parish public schools as charter schools.

Now Chicago and New Orleans are being used as national models for education “reform.” Hey America! President Obama! Have you looked closely at what’s happened to public education and its stakeholders in these cities as well as Ohio, D.C., and Philadelphia since charters were introduced?

The “education reform” playing out in these places is not about helping schools became better schools by helping teachers become better teachers and helping students become better students. Nor is it attending to long-deferred maintenance on facilities. It is about replacing us. This movement is the result of long-term efforts towards privatization and divestment of our local public institutions driven by racist and conservative agendas of historic proportions. Doubt this? Look at who’s profiting from it. Look at who’s hurting.

Why is President Obama now pushing charter schools as the answer to systemic failures? Perhaps he is he unaware of the extensive research nationwide showing that charter school outcomes are inconsistent, disputable, and questionable, while unequivocally proving that they often perpetuate inequality and corruption. They hurt instead of help students, families, educators, and communities in many places where they were once hailed as solutions to these very issues. Charter schools were intended to be incubators of innovation, not to replace traditional schools altogether. The rationale of expanded charter school systems is deeply flawed and dangerous to our nation’s well-being.

The drivers of this reform do not know how to, or are not interested in, producing healthy whole people and successful community outcomes. They arbitrarily tie finances, long-term stability, and local self-determination to controversial high stakes test scores and call that “accountability,” all the while directing tens of millions of dollars at a time towards perpetuating their personal and political networks – at the ultimate expense of students and neighborhoods.

In New Orleans and Chicago, the people affected have no voice in the decisions being made. We find out about our school closures through the newspapers. The faculties and staff continue to be fired; the students continue to be displaced. Confusion and obfuscation rule the day. How do we keep a non-system accountable? There are outrageous contracts we know about, but can’t get anyone to answer for. In New Orleans almost four years into this “experiment in market-driven public education,” young people are still regularly dying in the streets. Schools keep failing. Public school families are struggling every day, or have left. If the experiment becomes national policy, our entire country will be in chaos.

Changing a school system’s governance is not sufficient to affect how a student and teacher interact in a way that causes the student to become successful. Experts and parents agree: what at-risk children and communities need is the same as their better–situated counterparts: small classrooms, experienced teachers, and stability.

Also, experts are now saying that our American education system as a whole has moved (almost completely) away from imparting knowledge and skills gained through hands-on experience, and now relies too heavily on textbook, classroom, and computer instruction. Further, in the past 30 years or so, our national education laws and priorities have moved in directions that are particularly unfriendly to young boys’ natural brain development. This is causing social problems, heartbreak, and even violence for much of our society across every demographic. Instead of moving our country’s practices in a healthier direction, we are punishing individual boys and their families for failure from coast to coast.

Be aware that in New Orleans and Chicago, the charter reform experiment is in governance only – the vast majority of charter schools are using off-the-shelf, conventional factory-model curriculums to meet NCLB targets. This means that nearly all students who are different in any way do not fit in. Although a child might someday make an amazing craftsman, in today’s schools we are not giving them the basic skills that they need to succeed in life. The whole system must transform to work with children’s natural timeline of development in order to prepare them to become productive members of society who are not necessarily all going to college.

Mr. Vallas brought to RSD his troupe of traveling Chicago consultants who are paid for by the Walton and Gates Foundations, and he appointed them heads of each historic neighborhood school’s “advisory committee.” They dictate everything that happens. Community members of these committees are only notified of changes at the school after decisions are made. Our system is so confused and political that it is difficult if not impossible to maintain current and accurate oversight of one or a few schools, much less the multiple governances, quiet contracts, and the big picture.

Our country is already struggling to sustain itself. Why would we disempower instead of stabilize our school systems?

The charter boards are society- or self-selected and self-perpetuating. There are no public elections and local stakeholders voice concerns that basic public meeting laws are routinely ignored.

Imagine what happens if the most wealthy, political, and/or popular personalities in each part of your town get to commandeer your neighborhood public schools and decide who gets in.

Now add promises of big money, autonomy, and competition based on test scores.

Each charter group becomes a clique, or a mafia. The challenging kids are pushed out.

The challenging teachers, or any staff who might have higher personnel costs due to tenure, are pushed out too.

Today in New Orleans the continued chaos in the schools is locally cited as injuring our recovery and prolonging the disaster, even as the President’s basketball buddy lies to the nation about how great it is here.

All you have to do is look at the test scores they don’t want you to see- to understand that 70 % of our children are still failing basic skills tests in many schools.

Simply put: when public schools are forced to compete for resources, high-scoring students, and the cheapest possible employees, the results to society are not good, especially in this era of increasing scarcity.

After four years of the New Orleans charter school system experiment, and from charters across the country, we can now identify the following costs to society from charter school expansions:

1. continued failing and unstable schools
2. loss of a stable middle class of education professionals
3. “cheaper” short term employees have no retirement, tenure, or job security, with regular rights violations
4. total loss of democratic governance of schools
5. loss of meaningful participation – public meetings are for show and the outcomes are pre-determined
6. large-scale loss of accountability and oversight
7. loss of systemic cooperation for the best interests of children and society
8. funds intended for education instead going to middle men
9. no less troubled /struggling children and families
10. no less blood in the streets from youth violence

Is this what we want for America? President Obama, we need an investment in healing. We need the resources and self-determination to come to us, not to those who purport to serve us but actually serve themselves. Charter schools are not the answer. Systems of public schools in competition are not the answer. Blaming and rejecting struggling children, veteran teachers, and locally elected school boards won’t build up our nation. We need an accountable local governance model, based on big-picture cooperation, with healthy expectations and positive, respectful support from the Federal government. We must foster stability and nurturing to change the very destructive, even soul-crushing, dynamics of today’s American education system if we are to accomplish the positive change promised by your vision of hope for our lives.

School Facilities Master Plan update

The SFMP has been a hot topic lately as it seems to have been thrown out the window. I’m working on a detailed follow-up, so please send your comments to me for a school-by-school report.

Here’s my comments to the “plan” last fall:

Amy Lafont
PO BOX 51153
New Orleans, LA 70151
(504) 416-9766

October 1, 2008

School Facilities Master Plan Public Comments

1.Lack of Responsiveness to RFP
a.Theme of the plan: When I read the plan, I became immediately concerned about the themes presented at the very beginning, specifically on page 3, the first 2 of which state:

1.)Design and build innovative and effective school facilities;
2.)Create and implement the most efficient means of relocating students and schools…

In contrast, The State Department of Education-issued RFP scope of work states in Section 7.0:

• Assist the OPSB and RSD in creating a Facilities Master Plan that can be used to guide future school renovation and construction initiatives;
• Develop standards for educational suitability by school type;
• Conduct a facilities condition and cost assessment, based on existing data and field data collection, for all selected schools;
• Prepare a life-cycle capital renewal forecast across all facilities to provide a basis for maintenance and operations planning for the next ten years;

Key items are not addressed, and nowhere in the state’s Request for Proposals are the planner’s “themes” for design and relocation found. Clearly, the planners adopted self-serving themes which are not responsive to the basic instructions of the RFP.

b.Shock Doctrine:
The Plan on page iv sites a “robust creative change process currently underway in New Orleans.” This is absurd. This is the wiki definition of Shock Doctrine:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shock_Doctrine:_The_Rise_of_Disaster_Capitalism

“The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism is a 2007 book by Canadian journalist Naomi Klein. The book and film argue that the free market policies of Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics have risen to prominence in countries such as Chile under Pinochet, Russia under Yeltsin, the United States (for example in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), and the privatization of Iraq’s economy under the Coalition Provisional Authority not because they were democratically popular, but because they were pushed through while the citizens of these countries were in shock from disasters or upheavals. It is also claimed that these shocks are in some cases, such as the Falklands war, created with the intention of being able to push through these unpopular reforms in the wake of the crisis.”

2.Planner qualifications
a.Concordia’s failure to include schools in UNOP as agreed –Please see attached letter Lafont to Jarvis November 2006
b.DeSoto Parish Schools v. Concordia – Concordia was sued by DeSoto Parish schools in a case that everyone here should familiarize themselves with as informative to our current situation in post-UNOP New Orleans. Concordia designed facilities that were not constructible, while charging the school system exorbitant fees for themselves and inappropriately chosen outside consultants. Corcordia’s work in DeSoto Parish was an unqualified absolute failure, costing taxpayers millions and extensive delays. Concordia’s designs were so flawed that nothing they proposed was built and resulted in extensive contract litigation with great losses to the DeSoto Parish School System.
c.Planning Consultant DeYoung espoused ideologies which are demeaning to our people and he exhibited no familiarity with our culture or self-determined priorities
d.Parsons – Baghdad Police Academy
i.Parson’s is under investigation by the US Federal Government for Fraud and Malfeasance in Iraq. It is reported that everything they built in Iraq was built so poorly that the buildings will all have to be demolished. Parsons agreed to go back and fix the Baghdad Police Academy for free since its ceilings and floors are crumbling and substandard pipes are leaking sewerage on cadets in what is called Iraq’s most essential civil security project. Parsons should remove themselves from New Orleans and honor their commitment to the Iraqi and American people before taking on another project. They have no credibility until this is done.

3.Demographics study –
a.Did not count all children – by counting public school students only, the study misrepresents the number of seats needed in each district. The plan does not accommodate families who would prefer to send their children to quality public schools should those schools be available. Instead, the plan insures seats will not be available for these students and perpetuates disproportionate, forced reliance on private schools for our communities.
b.Contains questionable numbers – see Friends of Jeff analysis
c.National experts are willing to analyze the entire study for accuracy, but more time is needed. Is the public comment period so short to avoid this analysis?

4.Community Input v. Impact
a.There has been continuous, vocal expression of concern by community members that community input has been contrived, managed, and is not genuinely reflected in the document we are presented with.
b.Disregard for our history – Community and facility historic significance is never considered in this plan, contrary to strenuous public instruction to the planners to respect our historic institutions.
c.Disregard for our culture – the proposed permanent closures of important educational and cultural institutions will adversely affect our communities forever. Additionally, there is no consideration for our cultural priorities for art, our musical, and craftsmanship traditions in this plan.
d.Perpetuates instability – the proposed landbanking and relocations of established schools needlessly keeps our society unstable for the foreseeable future.
e.Perpetuates inequality – why have John McDonough, Frederick Douglass, Walter Cohen, John F. Kennedy, John Dibert, Joseph A. Craig, and Bauduit (to name a few) not received the same facility upgrades as Lusher-Fortier?
f.Perpetuates reliance on consultants – This “plan” is a planner’s dream of creating a society with a perpetual need for planning consultants for the foreseeable future.
g.Contracts rather than expands our school system as we are trying to recover our city- This plan permanently institutionalizes white flight, Katrina displacement, race and class separations through school closures and arbitrary reorganizations.

5.Programming or not?
a.Community members were not allowed to give input on programming, yet the planners have developed programming proposals behind closed doors.
i.themed schools – most communities had zero input
ii.elimination of middle schools – inappropriate for our culture due to overaged students
iii.elimination of neighborhood High Schools – perpetuates turf wars, violence, requires travel, leaves no options for regular kids

6.Basis in financial and construction reality?
a.Our Budget is finite and this plan does not reflect that reality.
b.This plan perpetuates unsustainably high transportation costs for the system and individual recovering families.
c.Parameters for sites are based on fantasy not our reality
i.Site sizes arbitrarily required by the plan do not match our campus stock, requiring massive and continuous displacements and expensive new construction.
ii.Larger school sizes reflect Mr. Pastorek’s personal preference, but not our available facilities; Smaller schools are also proven to work well for many students, especially special needs and disadvantaged students, and therefore are arbitrarily eliminated.
iii.Gross errors have been found in the facility analyses provided by Parsons, causing concern of whether they did any more than ‘drive-by assessments’ such as were done on our levees pre-Katrina. A sample study indicated that these facility assessments are fundamentally unreliable.
d.We can renovate more schools than new construction with available funds. If the planners’ numbers do not reflect that, we need time to closely analyze their numbers and construction practices. Hiring Texas contractors will inflate costs exorbitantly. We need local craftspeople to restore and update our facilities, bringing jobs and economic development to local small businesses.
e.Sustainability – the greenest building is the one that’s already built. Claims have been made about many buildings’ unsuitability for renovation due to structural and environmental issues, however these claims appear thin. Time is needed to locally analyze in detail building conditions and options for most efficient re-opening of schools.

There is no reason to rush this plan through minimal public review after some 15 months of plan development. I am a single working mother who is directly affected now and forever by this plan. I have diligently read the plan and even evacuated with it, however although I know how, due to time constraints I have not yet been able to perform my independent facility analysis for comparison such as the planners had 15 months and tremendous resources to do. Were there data to appear correct and their reputations solid, we could perhaps extend some confidence and overlook certain issues. However, this is clearly not in the best interests of our children, our families, our city, and our long-term future.

Therefore, the public comment and revision period must be extended to allow for meaningful participation, or the plan should be rejected entirely due to its inadequacy and very poor quality.

Attachments:

1.Letter Lafont to Jarvis November 27, 2006
2.Testimony Lafont to Louisiana Legislature May 1, 2008
3.Attachment to Testimony May 1, 2008
4.Petition for Damages and Amended Petition, with Exhibits, DeSoto Parish Schools v. Concordia Architects 1998