A meeting of the House Education Committee went from contentious to downright hostile on Wednesday, when Rep. Joe Bouie (D-New Orleans) repeatedly railed against charter schools and the Recovery School District’s (RSD) takeover of schools in New Orleans.
Bouie, who has spent much of the past year building support around legislation to return RSD charters to the Orleans Parish School Board, has tended to frame his effort around the principle of local democratic control over education. Now that Bouie’s outbursts have revealed his animosity toward charter schools and his delusional belief that schools are worse today than before Katrina, RSD school leaders and reform supporters are left wondering whether the reunification of schools would mark the beginning of a slow slide backwards.
I. Round One: Bouie vs. Landry
It all began when the committee took up House Bill 98, a proposal from Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith to eliminate independent (local) charter authorizers. Among those who came to testify against the bill were Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools Executive Director, Caroline Roemer, IDEA Public Schools‘ Kenneth Campbell, and Choice Foundation CEO Mickey Landry.
As the trio wrapped up their testimony, Rep. Bouie was given the floor to ask Landry a question. Instead, Bouie almost immediately launched into a tirade against charter schools and the RSD’s reforms in New Orleans, which he repeatedly described as a “skewed and unscientific experiment” on children and families.
At one point, Bouie even tried to debunk New Orleans’ academic gains over the past ten years, asserting they were little more than an accounting trick made possible by changes to the state’s accountability metrics. In response, Landry told Bouie:
“With regard to the data, you are welcome – and I have invited you before – to come to Choice Foundation schools. I can show you data. I will show you proof in writing, in black and white – not from the state test, but from other nationally-normed assessments that we take – that show that our kids are doing much better than they were under the old…criminally corrupt system in New Orleans.”
II. Round Two: Bouie vs. White
Yet Bouie’s back-and-forth with Landry was only a skirmish compared to the heated exchange he subsequently had with State Superintendent John White, who appeared before the committee to testify against House Bill 167, a proposal to suspend BESE’s ability to authorize charter schools.
Bouie took advantage of the opportunity to pick a fight with White. He kicked things off by accusing the Superintendent of manipulating accountability data to justify reform efforts in New Orleans, which Bouie again referred to as a “state-sanctioned experiment.”
White vigorously disputed the characterization and the implicit association with abhorrent experiments conducted on African-Americans in the not-so-distant past, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. As White told Bouie:
“I understand that the word “experiment” not only has a denotation, but it has a historical connotation – one of the most ugly connotations in the history of this nation. And it is offensive, I believe, to the thousands of families who choose charter schools and the thousands of educators who work in them, for you to make that…association with the word in its ugliest sense.”
Needless to say, things went downhill from there. At one point Bouie declared, “It is time for Louisianans to understand that the charter movement is an experiment – and in fact, that children are being harmed.” Moreover, when an incredulous White asked Bouie to clarify whether he believed that students in his district were failing, Bouie said: “They’re failing…The data says that they’re failing.”
III. Bouie’s Comments Are Cause For Concern
Over the past year, momentum has been steadily been building behind the idea of returning RSD charters to the control of the Orleans Parish School Board. Lawmakers, school officials, and stakeholder groups have spent several months arguing over the details of such a plan and there are several different proposals up for consideration, including three bills from Rep. Bouie – House Bills 466, 1033, 1108 – as well as proposals from Rep. Neil Abramson (House Bill 1111) and Sen. Karen Carter Peterson (Senate Bill 432).
For their part, RSD charter leaders have been in no rush to return to the school board. While a handful of schools entered into negotiations with the board this year, the outcome of those discussions are unclear. Meanwhile, lingering concerns about the status of a new school funding plan, as well as OPSB’s capacity and willingness to follow through on their promises, have led many RSD charter school officials to decide that the risk isn’t worth it. And of course, underlying everything is the fear that the tremendous progress seen since Katrina might be slowly erased once schools are back under school board control.
Rep. Bouie’s behavior on Wednesday makes clear that those underlying fears are valid. After all, what does it say when the leader of the return effort insists that our school system is worse now than it was before the storm? How can RSD schools trust the intentions behind a return plan crafted, in large part, by someone who clearly hates charter schools? And, how do we know that the politicians and officials who have been meeting behind-the-scenes to hammer out the details have been working in the best interests of students and families?
When it comes down to it, Bouie’s comments reveal that the push to return schools to local control has little to do with what’s best for kids (in fact, he even can’t recognize the progress kids have made before his very eyes). This is about power, it’s about control, and to a large extent, it’s about restoring the ancien régime of the pre-2005 New Orleans Public Schools system. Once schools are back in the bosom of OPSB, what happens next is anyone’s guess.
In a sense, the “original sin” of the post-Katrina reform movement in this city was our failure to address the root cause of the district’s problems: the Orleans Parish School Board. As a result, our eleven-year reform effort finds itself in an increasingly precarious position. I know that there are some people who insist that the board’s wayward past is behind it. But who can really say the board has changed when OPSB just recently delegated the funding formula decision to its superintendent, so that board members could avoid voting on it? Moreover, who believes the board will have the courage to make even tougher decisions that no doubt lie in store for us in the future?
Until we restructure the board, establish clear guardrails for their decision-making powers, and build the district’s capacity to assume the myriad responsibilities of the RSD, lawmakers should not rush to support any of the plans for return. The children of New Orleans have too much to lose.