They barged into my bedroom at the crack of noon with frantic reports of a hurricane in the Gulf that could ruin the city. “Go back to sleep,” I told my boyfriend. “They’re on drugs.”
It was August 27, 2005, four days before Tulane’s semester start that never came to be.
To be sure, I was one of the lucky ones, privileged enough to know someone with a car. I arrived in Houston on August 28, 2005 — one day before Katrina made landfall.
The most graphic consequences of the storm are well documented, and I will not detail them here. I still lack that motivation.
Upon returning to the city, the discovery of my flooded home and spoiled commodities were overshadowed by two words painted on the roof: “NEED ICE.” Someone had been on that roof begging for life’s most basic necessity — water.
Nearly ten years later, I woke to another disturbing report about Hurricane Katrina that at first blush appeared to be the result of drug-induced delusion. But this time, the troubling message was not delivered by teenage bohemians, but by a member of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board.
Kristen McQueary’s “In Chicago, Wishing for a Hurricane Katrina” praises the purifying effects of the natural disaster and wishes a Katrina-like storm upon the city of Chicago. It was later lightly edited, but its original can be found here. According to McQueary, with the ten year anniversary of Katrina approaching:
“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.”
The reset button to which McQueary refers is the government’s post-Katrina ability to “slash positions” and “detonate labor contracts.”
“An underperforming public school system saw a complete makeover. A new schools chief, Paul Vallas, designed a school system with the flexibility of an entrepreneur. No restrictive mandates from the city or the state. No demands from teacher unions to abide. Instead, he created the nation’s first free-market education system. Hurricane Katrina gave a great American city a rebirth.”
After becoming the subject of backlash on Twitter, McQueary defended her article in a tweet: “If you read the piece, it’s about finances and government. I would never diminish the tragedy of thousands of lives lost.” Then, with all the grace of Iggy Azalea, she penned a follow-up editorial clarifying that her Katrina piece was not meant to show racism or a lack of empathy, and that she was “horrified and sickened at how [her] column was read.”
Hurricane Katrina was by far the costliest natural disaster in our nation’s history, and the deadliest since 1928. But McQueary’s biggest blunder may not have been her crude meteorological metaphors. Essentially, she pulled a Donald Trump. She expressed with striking candor a claim more disciplined conservatives only convey in coded language: democracy stifles progress in our government, in our schools, and in our workplaces.
After Katrina, the state superintendent announced no public schools would open during the 2005-2006 school year despite the fact that much of the city remained dry. The Louisiana legislature then passed Act 35, which raised the student standardized test passage rate below which the state can take over schools from 60 percent to an arbitrary 87.4 percent — but only for Orleans Parish. The state then took over 102 of the 128 Orleans Parish public schools, paving the way for a charter school revolution. Starting next year, New Orleans will become the first city in the nation to have an all-charter school system.
At my first job out of college, I gained some insight into the construction of what McQueary’s editorial extols as “the nation’s first free-market education system.” I was working to regain collective bargaining rights for the United Teachers of New Orleans, which, with 7,500 members was the state’s largest union before the storm. Before Katrina, its members comprised the backbone of the black middle class in New Orleans.
One of my first work assignments was at a newly established charter elementary school in New Orleans East. Parents were upset at allegations that the gym teacher, son of the principal and his wife, who was the school’s director, had imposed corporal punishment, made children stand in the rain, called students “whores,” used the mother of all racial epithets, and brandished a semi-automatic pistol in the students’ presence. The allegations were later substantiated. The controversy broiled for months, but nothing was done until the union got involved, organizing parents, teachers, and the community around the welfare of the children. Far too late, and after I had moved on from that position, the principal, school director, and gym teacher were terminated.
The situation in the Village de Lest neighborhood had racial overtones. The administrators and gym teacher were white. The children were primarily black and Vietnamese. My observations there were by no means the exception. A majority of the teachers and administrators at New Orleans charters are white; the vast majority are not from New Orleans.
The central authority of the school board in New Orleans has diminished, but its power has not flowed to teachers and parents. With the elimination of neighborhood schools and subversion of the union, parents and teachers are divided, left to fight their own individual battles with school CEOs (formerly known as principals).
But there are pockets of democratic resistance among the students themselves. Students have staged walk-outs and sit-ins to protest injustices like teacher firings, harsh discipline, and a lack of learning material. Last year, charter school students at one local high school presented their grievances at a meeting of the charter board. Students complained that they must recite the school’s “core values” (a pledge) just to get into the building, and if they do it incorrectly, they must start over again. Only the low wage support staff is black — none of the teachers or administrators. The students lack textbooks; instead, they learn from outlines tailored towards state tests. They are forced to walk on lines of tape in the hallway, lest they become one of the majority of students who gets suspended in any given year.
Administrators justified their strict disciplinary policies on the basis that the college preparatory academy is tasked with preparing students for university life.
As a graduate of the very university that helped orchestrate the charter school takeover, it is hard for me to fathom how training students to parrot a corporation’s values and walk on a line of tape prepares students for university studies in any meaningful way.
Charter advocates tout improved state test scores and graduation rates as evidence of success. Many journalists report these statistics, (McQueary included) then omit relevant information like the fact that state administrators changed what constitutes a passing score, and the fact that once the schools remaining under Orleans Parish School Board control are taken out of the picture, the city’s charter school graduation rates are embarrassingly low (40-60 percent range in 2014). Recovery School District charters have an average ACT score of 16.4, below the requirements for a scholarship to any Louisiana university.
New Orleanians are all too familiar with what it is like to have the important aspects of their lives ripped from their control. We can only hope that just as New Orleanians retook control of their lives after the storm, so too will they retake control of their schools. The market-based illusion of “voting with your feet” in an all-charter system is no substitute for actual democracy, especially for a people with the keenest sense that there is no place they’d rather be.
The story of New Orleans is one of resilience and the ability to overcome outside interruptions. It is a story that McQueary does not fully comprehend. So I’ll sum it up with a quote that she may have heard of, for it is familiar to both journalists and New Orleanians alike:
“Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes…Its condition is so bad that when I write about it, as I intend to do soon, nobody will believe I am telling the truth. But it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio.” -Lafcadio Hearn, 1879
[Lafcadio Hearn, 1850-1904, was an international writer who spent time in the U.S. including Cincinnati and New Orleans, in the post Civil War era]
Photo: June, 2007, by OdoFemi McDuffy, a friend who worked on that union campaign with me in New Orleans.