Thursday, August 28, 2008

Attempting to Pivot to an Alternative Vision

Regular readers know that I do not believe that the recently released facilities master plan for New Orleans public schools reflects the public's long term interest. In fact, I think it is poorly conceived. I think it should be roundly rejected.

Yet, I understand that it is not enough to merely oppose. This city been victimized by the failures of the public school system for decades. More importantly, the children of this city have been victimized by the failures of the city to truly address education. A lot of parents might look at the benefits of the master plan for their school or for the charter movement in general. Responsible parents look out for their kids and charter schools appeal to responsible parents. A lot of responsible parents, because they're looking out for their kids, might not be as concerned with the overall impact of the master plan on the entire district. The very nature of the charter system in New Orleans not only pits schools against one another in competition for access to resources but it pits parents against each other in competition for access to schools.

But why do charter schools appeal to responsible parents?

Is it that certain charters can admit students selectively? Is it that charters are getting brand new buildings, books, and teachers? Is it that charters can experiment with unique curriculum and teaching methods?

I would offer that the advantage of charter schools is that they have the autonomy to try new things, that principals are given the trust and flexibility to implement high academic standards and the systems necessary to achieve them.

The disadvantages are many: the dismemberment of union protection for teachers, the utter lack of accountability to any citizen-controlled (theoretically, especially if we take advantage of our right to vote) agency like the school board, the ample room for corporate operators to profit, the selfish competition for funding from the government and from endowments.

Isn't there a model that provides principals with the latitude to manage their schools without totally eliminating oversight and accountability to the public?

Yes there is.

Look at Boston's Pilot Schools Program.

A Pilot-esque program in New Orleans would demand a reunified school district. Rather than having multiple school systems that operate in isolation, their successes protected as 'trade secrets' and their failures prevented from coming to light, we would have a more democratized system. Successful educational initiative at one school would be celebrated and replicated. Failed models would be investigated and learned from.


How does this fit into the master plan?

The master plan, in its current form, not only reduces the overall capacity of the public education system by demolishing over 50 schools by 2013, it has no funding for any additional expansion. It takes schools away from struggling neighborhoods, further punishing already-victimized communities. Without any funding in place beyond 2013, the school district is already floating the notion that any future expansion of our system's capacity would have to be done through "third party operators," who might be for-profit, non-profit charters, or explicitly private schools.

This doesn't represent the citizens taking charge of public education, it represents the government giving it away.

Outsourcing a critical public service, a right of birth, has never worked in America. When we outsource the protection of this country to people like Blackwater, we fail to protect this country. When we outsource public health to insurance companies, we fail to provide health care to our neighbors. When we outsource public education to 'third party operators,' some of our children get left out. Education is a right. The government should guarantee that everyone has access to it. Charter schools, private schools, for-profit operators leave out our most vulnerable children. It isn't fair.

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One consistently provided rationale for the widespread school closures and the small number of large high schools put forth by Parsons-Concordia is that the district needs to reduce its long-term maintenance costs.

Are you kidding? Maintenance?

Neighborhoods being stripped of their schools because there isn't enough money for maintenance?!? Well, where's the money for phases 2-5 of the master plan?!?

Parsons-Concordia would have you believe that it will be easier, more beneficial, and more cost-effective to have the city scrambling to find the tens of millions of dollars it would take to build new schools or to sell out to for-profit operators in 2013 than it would be to fully-fund a regular maintenance budget?

Maybe that's a little Paul Vallas sneaking in there since he cut Philadelphia's school maintenance budget every year he was there.

A responsible and equitable school facilities master plan would not punish struggling neighborhoods by taking their schools away because a responsible and equitable school facilities master plan would recognize that you can't put a suburban campus in an urban school district and expect the same results. We can have good neighborhood schools in urban neighborhoods.

At the elementary schools level, the facilities master plan actually aspires to this in it's current form. The elementary school element recognizes the research supporting neighborhood schools and though too many neighborhoods are stripped of their school under the Concord-Parsons plan in its current form, there is a basic framework there that does not to be totally thrown into the fireplace.

At the high school level, on the other hand, I don't know if we could have been given a bigger slap in the face. The whole treatment of high schools needs to be reworked and that cannot be done in a thirty, sixty, or even ninety day public comment period. The master plan largely eliminates neighborhood high schools. It requires enormous land tracts that we have to spend precious resources to acquire when we already have beautiful buildings that did not flood being land-banked for future sale. Schools do not need to have an on-site football stadium to provide a world-class education. Not all of our high schools need to spend our limited resources on football stadiums when the students at Carver High School are going to be learning in FEMA trailers until 2013. There is something to be said for some small learning environments - for some neighborhood-oriented high schools that respond to the available community assets and provide those assets for communities struggling to reestablish themselves.

There is nothing wrong with a school's football team having to walk two or three blocks to a community park for practice. There is something wrong with kids having to take the bus 45 minutes to even make it in the morning because they've been assigned to go to the new school at English Turn. There is nothing wrong with tearing down badly damaged schools to build brand new. There is something wrong with concentrating all of those scarce resources into an experimental pipe dream that values stoking the architectural wonderment of planning community peers at the expense of overall educational capacity.

An alternative master plan that helped struggling communities get back on their feet by reopening schools, respected the research on the benefits of the neighborhood schools model, and committed to public maintenance of a basic public right would be able to keep the progressive democratization benefits of some charter programs while eliminating the conservative balkanization of our nonexistent charter accountability systems. Using the pilot schools model from Boston as a guide to unify our schools under democratic control, we could craft a master plan that quickly gets our children out of FEMA trailers and back into real classrooms, doubles other public facilities (such as parks) as educational assets, ensures that struggling communities are the first to receive new facilities, and responsibly distributes our limited one-time funds while demanding the long-term budget streams necessary to guarantee district-wide facilities maintenance, teacher salaries and health benefits, textbooks, technologies, and so on and so forth.

Okay so maybe this rambles a little bit and doesn't quite completely draw the big picture. Maybe it doesn't collect enough supporting evidence. That's okay. I did this over the course only a few hours. The point is that if you have grave questions about the master plan in its current form and care about delaying any binding decision until the new OPSB we elect takes office, we need to do more than convince our neighbors that the vision articulated in the facilities master plan sells them short. We'll need to put forth an alternative. Getting there can be a collaborative effort.

I know that everyone is consumed with hurricane evacuation preparations but let us remember that there is a critical public comment opportunity at City Council next week. Though I believe it should be postponed, I'm not convinced it will be.

5 comments:

C Jeff said...

I'm a lurker on your blog, and I have to say, I agree with this post entirely. Thank you for your updates. I'm from New Orleans but currently live far away (trying to move home). As I try to keep track of what's going on in NO, your blog is really helpful and inspiring. What do you think people like me who live far away and can't attend the Council Meeting(s) can do to help protest this absurd and horrific plan?

Leigh C. said...

When exactly is the City Council meeting, for all us enquiring minds?

E said...

Thanks C Jeff. First time caller long time listener? LOL.


What I suggest that people out of town do, and I'll throw this to the main screen at some point, is to provide public comment electronically. Believe it or not, the RSD accepts and has pledged to publish comments filed via email. You can send "an official comment" to masterplan@rsdla.net.

But you might take a step further. I'd suggest also send that comment (and also a streamlined version for publication) to the editors of New Orleans City Business and the Times Picayune and also emails to the education beat writers at both of those papers. Let's also include the New York Times, since they have been on such good terms with the RSD.

I'll work on posting all of this information later.

And Leigh,

The city council meeting is tentatively scheduled for Wednesday September 3rd at 10:00 A.M.

They'll certainly have to postpone it.

Leigh C. said...

The storm's headed for corpus, I'm tellin' ya! ;-)

E said...

yeah i ain't goin' no where