Lessons from Katrina for the School District of Philadelphia

School started this week in Philadelphia, but things are not business as usual in the School District this year. This is the first week in which the school district is implementing its newest version of the “network model”.

On July 8th, 2015, with little fanfare, the Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, Dr. William Hite (a graduate of the Eli Broad Superintendant’s Academy), announced 10 new hires. 13 “learning networks” would now make up the school district, run by these newly hired administrators. Although Pennsylvania has been met with a budget impasse in Harrisburg, Hite claimed that the new hires, whose salaries can be expected to be around $145,000, would not impact the district’s overall budget, which last year was operating at approximately an $81 million deficit. In the nation’s poorest largest city, education reform efforts have been happening in a climate of fiscal crisis, where each year, school funding is questioned and largely unpredictable. But the ways in which this manufactured crisis affect Philadelphia varies, in largely predictable ways around race. Of the 23 schools closed in 2013, 81% of students affected were black, whereas the city is 44% black as a whole. The schools that receive the least funding are often in the poorest, and predominantly Black neighborhoods.

In the ten years since Katrina, the New Orleans’ school district has become completely privatized and is run by charter operators in a network model. With the anniversary of 10 years post-Katrina in the news, education circles have been bombarded with tireless lauding from education reformers of the Recovery School District (RSD). In 2010, U.S. Secretary of Education and “education reformer” Arne Duncan infamously referred to Hurricane Katrina as “the best thing to happen to the education system of New Orleans.” (See attached Network for Public Education report). Co-Executive Director of the Broad Foundation has described New Orleans as the “Silicon Valley of education”.

In the shadow of this anniversary, we want to honor the lives lost and displaced as the result of both natural disaster and human-induced crisis. New Orleans is not the same city that it once was, in part, because so many families are no longer with loved ones, nor can they return to once-loved communities that nurtured generations. The overwhelming majority of displaced and affected people post-Katrina are black and now reform coupled with gentrification continues to shift the city of New Orleans from one where Black people lived to one where Black people continue to be pushed out of communities, schools, and decision-making. When “innovation” happens at the cost of experimenting on mostly black and brown youth, we must ask ourselves why and who benefits.

When controlling for factors like race, ethnicity, poverty and whether students qualified for special education, on eighth-grade reading and math tests, charter-school students performed worse than their public-school counterparts by enormous margins in New Orleans. Researchers found that the gap between charter and public school performance in Louisiana was the largest of any state in the country. And Louisiana’s overall scores were the fourth-lowest in the nation. (NPE report) Another report by the Education Research Alliance confirmed that principals engage in widespread “creaming” — selecting, or counseling out, students based on their expected performance on standardized tests. Standards have been strategically lowered, so what little gains can be shown cannot be proven to be connected to any kind of success on behalf of charter operators nor are these gains valid.

A project of the Social Science Research Council, found that over 26,000 people between the ages of 16 and 24 in New Orleans are counted as “disconnected,” because they are neither working nor in school, likely because they have been “counseled out” for behavioral issues (How might young peoples’ behavior be impacted by years of traumatic displacement and loss?) or because they are not “performing” on standardized tests. The RSD has the highest percentage of students leaving school before the 9th grade (See attached report from the Louisiana Educator). Any gains that can be proven have come at the expense of the city’s most marginalized youth, who are pushed out, and no longer included in the data. The most impacted students are the black youth of NOLA whose neighborhoods and schools are under attack from waves of gentrification and reform.

  

​Posters created by New Orleans youth to question education reform in their city.

In 2012, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) was hired by the School District of Philadelphia (paid for by the William Penn Foundation, a major foundation in Philadelphia) to produce an analysis and strategic plan for the city’s schools. The BCG was also hired by foundations in New Orleans to produce an analysis in 2007. What both plans call for is a “decentralized” school district model, with ample space for charter operators and strategic plans for weakening the power of teachers unions and community input. Both plans call for school closures and turnover to charter operators. Both plans call for outsourcing of services to private operators (see: the massive expansion of TFA in NOLA, or outsourcing of substitute teachers in Philadelphia).

With Hurricane Katrina as the impetus for major reform, Philadelphia’s call for reform is not sparked by the destruction that came in the wake of a storm, but rather a sustained, systematic underfunding of public education: a fiscal “crisis”.

The Boston Consulting Group’s plan for Philadelphia, while rarely cited by the School District of Philadelphia, remains the guiding compass for education reform efforts in our city. The BCG plan for Philadelphia includes a detailed description of how to move towards a “portfolio model” of education. Borrowing Wall Street lingo, this strategy entails having a diverse “portfolio” of schools, so that one can as was described by Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership, “dump the losers.” Once the “losers” (read: young people, communities, teachers) are “dumped”, space is made for charter operators to “turnaround” networks in accordance with turnaround models, usually involving the closing of a school, the firing of staff, and the silencing of real community input. All this has taken place in New Orleans, and we can clearly see the result. The result is that Brown and Black students will suffer the most and the gain will be felt by charter operators who can remove their “failing” test scores by removing the “losers”. Is this is the education system that we want in Philadelphia? Is this is the education that we want to give to our most marginalized students?

Fast-forwarding to 2015, allows us to see that the BCG plan for the School District of Philadelphia is clearly in place, through Superintendent Hite’s Action Plan 3.0, presented to the public in March of 2015. Key to Dr. Hite’s agenda is the reorganization of school networks, to be supervised by new district hires, whose records are rife with corruption, failure, and a trend towards privatization. The network structure outlined in Action Plan 3.0 includes 9 Neighborhood Networks, the Turnaround Network, the Innovation Network, the Autonomy Network, and the Opportunity Network. In this first week of the new network model, few know what will be the result, but we do have New Orleans, as a model, to look to. We might then ask ourselves, what will education in Philadelphia look like 10 years from now?

Superintendent Hite’s New Orleans-reform style of trending towards privatization in the wake of “crisis” has been in place, since he began his position in 2012. During his 3 year tenure, dozens of schools have been closed, two children have died as a result of having full-time nurses cut from their schools, and two young people have been sexually assaulted at or en route to school due to cuts to support staff and having to walk farther distances to school as a result of school closures. The intentional under-funding of schools, cuts to key staff such as nurses and counselors that has led to the death of two children, and the political games being played with the lives of Philadelphia’s students is nothing short of criminal. Young people need schools in their communities, schools that are well-funded and nurturing. Communities need public schools to serve as hubs for services and safe spaces. The projected plan for Philadelphia does not hold up young people and their communities as the highest authority. The plan for Philadelphia, the Philadelphia that we can expect 10 years from now, will leave countless young people further disenfranchised, pushed to the margins, without any say in the ways that their schools and communities function.

The influence of major foundations in education reform has long been a fraught topic. With the major reform in cities taking place that serves to disenfranchise thousands of Black residents for the purposes of creating cities that are Whiter and younger, the discussion of how much influence these foundations have- and the ways that this influence is wielded is worth investigation.

Whose cities are these reform efforts, from Chicago to Philadelphia to New Orleans, for? There are groups across the nation that are fighting to have a say in what happens to our schools. From #FightForDyett in Chicago to the Newark Students Union, students and communities are pushing forth their narrative, one that includes their voices, perspectives and visions. Led by coalitions such as Journey 4 Justice and Alliance for Educational Justice, we can see a different future. It’s time we start listening to diverse narratives about public education reform, not just the perspectives of those who stand to gain from its dismantling.
NPE Louisiana Policy Brief
Louisiana Educator

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