First, a caveat: By all accounts, prior to Hurricane Katrina, the public school system in New Orleans was one of the least successful in the country — although according to the state's own accountability system, 93 of 117 Orleans Parish schools had made academic progress in the year before the storm. But a year after the storm, the teachers union has been all but broken; families struggle to make sense of a baffling mix of public, charter, and private schools; and many students are without any schools at all.
The United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO, American Federation of Teachers Local 527) had long been a progressive and activist organization, and thus a target — a disaster "opportunity." Last September, the school board put all of Orleans Parish's 7,500 school employees, including 4,500 teachers, on forced leave without pay. In October, Orleans Parish School Board created the Algiers Charter School District out of 13 schools on the west bank of the Mississippi, with the stipulation that no employees could be members of the teachers union. Then in February, the school board voted to fire all 7,500 school employees.
As UTNO president Brenda Mitchell says starkly in the speech we excerpt in this issue (page 24), "It is about breaking unions, it is about breaking the spirit of working-class people. It is about denying them their rights."
With millions of dollars of encouragement from Bush's Department of Education — and with the union decimated — New Orleans and Louisiana school authorities set about creating a bewildering supermarket of school choice for families. As the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Community Change reports in a fine new publication called Dismantling a Community (available at www.communitychange.org), the Louisiana State Department of Education has announced that it will open these schools in 2006-07:
Thirteen charters authorized by the Recovery School District (the state agency that has taken over 107 New Orleans schools). These charters are operated by independent charter associations, for-profit entities, national charter school operators, or others.