Within a month of Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Legislature had taken over the public schools of New Orleans, and the U.S. Secretary of Education had granted nearly $40 million to underwrite a massive experiment in charter schools. By the end of 2005, the Louisiana Legislature had fragmented the district, terminated all of the district's teachers, and broken the teachers union. Eventually because it was unable to attract enough charter school operators with qualifying applications, the state created a Recovery School District, which very soon became a set of schools-of-last-resort for children who could neither choose nor be chosen by independent charter schools. The results have been complicated and in many respects tragic, with a mass of positive publicity by charter school advocates, who have bragged about "so-called" success.
Many leaders in the New Orleans community have been more skeptical as they have watched the results. Here is a 2007 commentary circulated across the web by Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University, describing the transformation of public education post-Katrina as part of a recipe for how to destroy a community: "Even better, flip the public school system into a charter system and push foundations and the government to give extra money to the new charter schools. Give the schools with the best test scores away first. Then give the least flooded schools away next. Turn 70% of schools into charters so that the kids with good test scores or solid parental involvement will go to the charters. That way the kids with average scores, or learning disabilities, or single parent families who are still displaced are kept segregated… You will have to set up a few schools for those other kids, but make sure those schools do not get any extra money… In fact, because of this, you better make certain there are more security guards than teachers." Although Quigley sounds cynical, he is in fact describing the sequence of events that followed Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans schools.
As part of the Justice and Witness Ministries Gulf Coast Team, from October 2007 until January 2009, I convened and basically staffed an initiative to secure funding for a New Orleans Institute for Equity in Public Education. The idea grew from discussion at a consensus building meeting convened by Justice and Witness Ministries at Dillard University in New Orleans in October of 2007, to test for concerns about the transformation of the schools and to discover what local leaders believed could be a meaningful response. After that time, I met with a steering group of leaders that emerged from that first meeting; our purpose was to draft a grant proposal outline we could circulate for a research and advocacy agency to be housed in New Orleans with local participation in the research design. I drafted an outline and we revised it collaboratively until all in the local leadership group were satisfied. I took responsibility for researching funders and circulating the proposal. In July, 2008, the Ford Foundation expressed serious interest. At the end of 2008, this project was turned over to the College of Social Sciences at Loyola University, whose dean, Luis Miron, submitted a final proposal to the Ford Foundation.
As of February 2009, there are very strong indications that start up funding will be approved soon by the Ford Foundation. Unfortunately, this proposal as submitted by Loyola's College of Social Sciences, does not outline a role for the United Church of Christ. Although my involvement kept the group together through the grant application process, we are unlikely to be involved formally in its future. I am very comfortable with that outcome, but I think it is important to create a record of our involvement in this project. The United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries faithfully played the roles of:
- convening key local stakeholders to test concerns and priorities around the school-takeover and charterization post-Katrina;
- recording and organizing the feedback of local participants;
- convening a steering group through late 2007 and 2008 to create a funding proposal outline for a local research and policy agency to realize the goals of local leaders;
- researching potential funders;
- circulating a proposal outline;
- connecting the group back to the Ford Foundation, when this funder contacted me to express interest in the project;
- connecting the local and national stakeholders with Luis Miron, the new Dean of Social Sciences at Loyola University, who offered to create the agency within the Loyola College of Social Sciences;
- convening conference calls with the local stakeholders, the potential funder, and Luis Miron to ensure that the vision of the local activists is embodied in the final proposal, which, though drafted and submitted by Luis Miron, faithfully incorporated the original vision of New Orleans stakeholders).
Timeline for Project Development
On October 15, 2007—Justice and Witness Ministries convened a group of approximately 40 participants from across New Orleans to consider concerns relating to what had happened to the public schools since September 2005. Organizations that were represented in the October 15 conversation at Dillard or follow-up discussions include: The Algebra Project, All Congregations Together, Amistad Research Center, Beecher United Church of Christ, Downtown Neighborhood Improvement Association, Frederick Douglass Community Coalition, FYRE Youth Squad, Louisiana Justice Institute, staff at Loyola University and the Twomey Center for Peace through Justice at Loyola University, People's Institute, Pyramid Community Parent Resource Center, Sixth Baptist Church, Students at the Center, Southern Institute for Education and Research, United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries (a national partner), United Teachers of New Orleans, and staff from the University of New Orleans.
Through a facilitated all-afternoon process, participants identified their deepest concerns (full report attached) aincluding the following which surfaced by consensus as the priorities of the group:
- There is an urgent need for restoration of democracy through a unified and democratically elected school board that permits access for the public to decision making. Goal is unification of all the schools with equalized funding across all schools.
- We need to address the crisis created because the schools are Balkanized, fractured.
- There is an urgent need to change the mind-set in New Orleans that accepts the Recovery School District as a given. A set of "schools of last resort" cannot be a given.
- "A major goal has to be to bring back a system."
- There are no consequences for school operators when things go badly and no process by which the community can try to get problems addressed. There is no way to address massive inequities.
- There is a need for a community-based organization to provide research and advocacy support for the unification of the district and for addressing the mass of issues we have been discussing.
Between October of 2007 and April of 2008—I met in person and in a series of conference calls with a local steering group to create a proposal outline that reflected the voices of the New Orleans advocates who attended the October 15, Dillard University meeting to prioritize issues. Local advocates involved in on-going planning and visioning included Ursula and DJ Markey of the Pyramid Parent Resources Center (for parents of special needs children); Ted Quant, Director of the Twomey Center for Peace through Justice at Loyola University; Lance Hill, Director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University; and Harry Russell, Assistant Professor of Social Work at the Southern University at New Orleans School of Social Work. This group expanded to include potential national partners including Lisa Delpit, author and professor at Florida International University; Janice Jackson of the Harvard Graduate School of Education; and Richard Gray of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. The proposal outline, attached, was designed to remain faithful to the needs of the community identified on October 15 and developed with ongoing input from community leaders. The words of speakers at the October 15 meeting appear directly in the proposal outline.
Between April and June of 2008—I researched possible funders and circulated the proposal outline to the following foundations:
- Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation
- Carnegie Corporation of New York
- Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock
- The Arca Foundation
- The Ford Foundation
- The Bauman Foundation
- The Charles Stuart Mott Foundation
- The Annie E. Casey Foundation
- The Public Welfare Foundation
- The Forum for Education and Democracy
- The Schott Foundation for Public Education
- The Twenty-First Century Foundation
- The Open Society Institute
- The Foundation for the Mid South
- The Margurite Casey Fund
- The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation
- The Needmore Fund
July 25, 2008—I received a phone call from Cyrus Driver, the Education Program Officer at the Ford Foundation to express strong interest in the project. After this call, I convened the members of the steering group talk on several occasions to prepare for a follow-up call with Mr. Driver. When Dillard University fell through as a possible site, we met by phone several times with Luis Miron, new Dean of Social Sciences at Loyola University, who contacted us to explore collaboration on the project.
September 29, 2008—Cyrus Driver convened a conference call among the steering group at this point of the New Orleans Institute for Equity in Public Education, including: Cyrus Driver, Ford Foundation Education Program Officer; Jerry Maldinado, Ford Foundation gulf Coast Team; Luis Miron, Dean, College of Social Sciences, Loyola University; Ted Quant, Director of the Twomey Center at Loyola University; Ursula Markey, Co-Director of the Pyramid Parent Resources Center, New Orleans; Lisa Delpit, Education writer and professor at Florida International University; Janice Jackson, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Lance Hill, Southern Institute for Education and Research, and Jan Resseger. Additional local committee members were unable to join the call.
Fall, 2008—I helped convene several conference calls to keep local leaders engaged as the project continued to move through the funding application development process.
January 20, 2009—Luis Miron, Dean of the College of Social Sciences at Loyola University submitted full grant proposal (attached) to Cyrus Driver of the Ford Foundation. The full proposal includes virtually all of the philosophy, the specific elements of the community proposal outline that grew from the October 15, 2007 meeting convened by Justice and Witness Ministries, and much of the original language of local leaders in New Orleans.
Links to more information on the status of education post-Katrina can be found at: