When the public schools in New Orleans reopened after the winter holidays, 300 students were without a school to attend. These students have returned from other cities and towns where they were forced to relocate after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005.
“Recovery School District” Superintendent Robin Jarvis said another elementary school and high school will open this month and 73 more teachers will be hired. But parents are skeptical because Jarvis has made this promise many times before without results.
Of the district’s 128 schools, 100 were heavily damaged during the hurricane. Only 55 schools are operating now. Many children still do not have a neighborhood school or transportation to get to their assigned school. Some must walk through dangerous areas such as across railroad tracks and debris.
In November 2005 the state of Louisiana took over all New Orleans public schools under Act 35. Schools labeled “low achieving” or “failing” became part of the new Recovery School District ,and the remaining schools continued to be controlled by the Orleans Parish School Board. Immediately the school board turned over 13 schools to the Algiers Charter School Association to manage, keeping only five under school board control. Many of the Recovery School District schools have also been turned into charter schools.
Even before Katrina struck, the Louisiana Legislature had designed a blueprint for restructuring New Orleans public schools following the No Child Left Behind Act’s guidelines. In 2003, conservative legislators had promised “a new national model that would work in the best interest of the children.” Because the schools in New Orleans are 98 percent African American, many community groups called the plan racist. The Legislature blamed incompetent teachers for the low achievement of New Orleans students and blamed the union for protecting them.
For many years the union, United Teachers of New Orleans, had been fighting for full funding, smaller class size and proven educational programs that would work. UTNO Local 527 AFT saw Act 35 as a move to break the union. The state did not take over any other “failing” school district. Before Katrina, UTNO had 7,500 members, the largest union in the city. Now it has 300 members in four schools. The Orleans Parish School Board refuses to renegotiate a contract with UTNO. Teachers are working for lower salaries and benefits than UTNO negotiated before Katrina.
Brenda Mitchell, UTNO president, remembers Sept. 1, 2005, when UTNO members received their first and last check, were fired and had their insurance cancelled. On Feb. 1, 2006, UTNO filed suit to force the city to open more public schools. More schools were opened but far from the numbers needed. Said Mitchell, “There’s a maze of state, parish and charter-operated schools with separate processes for applying and registering with different rules and regulations. The balkanized, chaotic system should not be copied elsewhere.” UTNO urged officials to create a one-stop location where parents and others could get information for all city schools, but the suggestion was ignored.
Sandra Taylor, UTNO vice president for para-educators, said, “UTNO represented 1,300 paraprofessionals and 700 office workers before the hurricane. With the union we had strength. Now we have no voice.”
Taylor said she took her membership list with her when she evacuated to Houston and stays in contact with many of her colleagues. She estimates that 85 percent would return to New Orleans if their schools were repaired and housing was available. American Federation of Teachers President Edward J. McElroy agrees. “Most of the promises made after the storm have not been kept, and little progress has been made to restore this city,” said McElroy. “What’s worse, most of the actions taken have been politically motivated and adversely affect most families, except for the well-off few.” McElroy said Louisiana is using and abusing a tragedy to accomplish what it couldn’t do before: replace most of New Orleans public schools with privatized or charter schools.
“Don’t count us out,” says Brenda Mitchell, UTNO president. “We will continue to fight for the rights of our members and for the right of every New Orleans student to have a quality public education with the best certified teachers using proven instructional programs in safe, well-maintained buildings.”
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