They call it “the New Orleans Experiment.” But New Orleans parents never consented to have our children experimented on. We never asked to become part of this grand test run of a charter-based school choice initiative. And while some feel that this new system, this grand experiment, is working – others would point out that New Orleans schools are rife with inequities that are simply not getting any better.
Improving Outcomes – But Why?
If you look at the whole, educational outcomes and academic performance are improving in New Orleans. In the 2007-2008 school year, only 40 percent of New Orleans students scored at the “proficient” level on state testing. By the 2013-2014 school year, that number had reached 62 percent, only slightly lower than the Louisiana state average.
Whether that’s a result of the city’s new charter-based system is debatable, however. After Hurricane Katrina, additional funding of almost $1,400 annually per student began flowing into the district. According to Tulane University economics professor Doug Harris, without that funding, “The effects would almost certainly be smaller, but it’s hard to tell by how much.”
Bruce Baker, a professor of education at Rutgers University noted that in addition to that increase in funding, there was also a drastic reduction in instructional staffing expenses. Following Katrina, the New Orleans Recovery School District ended its contract with the United Teachers of New Orleans and fired more than 7,000 teachers. This resulted in an influx of inexperienced workforce, reduction in pensions, and changes to other benefit costs that are not sustainable over the long long term.
About Those Test Scores…
It’s true that educational outcomes, on the whole, are improving across New Orleans. But when you take a closer look, the system is still rife with inequity. According to a recent report from The Data Center, 77 percent of white public school students in grades 3-8 met state-mandated proficiency targets, while only 58 percent of students of color did so.
The disparity becomes even more troubling when looking at ACT scores. From 2013-2017 the average composite ACT scores for white students in New Orleans remained relatively unchanged, moving from 25.1 to 25.3. For Hispanic students, the average composite fell slightly from 21.8 to 21.7. And for black students, the number also fell – from 18.1 to 17.6.
That 17.6 composite score average is particularly troubling because in Louisiana, students are not eligible for TOPS college-tuition assistance if they score below 20 on the ACT, and most Louisiana universities require a minimum score of 20 for admission. This means that the average black student in New Orleans will not be eligible to attend a four-year college in Louisiana.
In New Orleans schools, teachers of color are vastly underrepresented when compared to the student body. While 91 percent of students are non-white, only 58 percent of the teachers are. In addition, at 32 of New Orleans schools, the teachers average less than four years of experience.
People of color are also vastly underrepresented on the charter school boards. On at least 25 charter school boards present within the city, the percentage of black members was statistically lower than that of the voting-age population in the city. This is particularly concerning because board composition often influences board policy, resulting in practices that do not serve black students well.
Students with disabilities are particularly underserved in New Orleans. As of 2018, 31 percent of New Orleans school facilities are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the city over disability violations. In 2014, a charter was accused of telling students with disabilities to stay home. In 2015, one school was found to have illegally deprived special education students of services. In 2016, another was found to have committed special education fraud. In 2017, The Lens reported that a New Orleans charter school suspended a student because administrators thought he was depressed. Finally, one charter school has been warned three times this school year for violating special education law with “systematic and student-specific non-compliance”.
According to NPR, 86 percent of New Orleans children no longer attend the school closest to home, and in many cases, children from the same household attend different schools. Because children are no longer attending the school closest to their homes, schools now spend between $172 and $2405 annually per student on transportation. And the schools serving the neediest students often bear the highest transportation costs. There are now thousands of children in New Orleans who begin their commute to school as early as 6:00 a.m., and who don’t make it home until after 5:00 p.m.
Going back to those policies which fail to serve black students equitably – The Data Center found that black students attending New Orleans schools are two to three times more likely to be given an out-of-school suspension than their white classmates. According to one recent high school graduate:
“Schools try to justify (out of school suspensions) by saying they’re trying to discipline (students). They are really hurting kids by putting them outside of school because they have on the wrong color shoes or the wrong socks. For example, a student may lose their tie but his parents can’t afford another tie, and the school doesn’t give him a chance to explain the sistuation. I think if schools would cut the ridiculous rules, the percentage would go down.”
A youth engagement coordinator asks The Data Center, “What are black kids doing that white kids aren’t? Or better yet, what are black kids getting suspended for that white kids aren’t?”
We Have To Do Better
New Orleans must begin to address some of these inequities if it is to hope to regain the trust and support of many New Orleans parents, and the students that they serve. Improved overall outcomes are not enough when those outcomes are not being achieved across the board for all students.
Jenn Bentley is a writer and editor originally from Cadiz, Kentucky. Her writing has been featured in publications such as The Examiner, The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, and others. When she’s not writing or editing, Jenn spends her time raising money for Extra Life and advocating for autism awareness. Follow her on Twitter: @JennBentley_