Lessons From The Past For Improving New Orleans Public Schools

Dec 5, 2018

As the city approaches the end of its tricentennial year, professors at the University of New Orleans and the University of Holy Cross are looking back on the city's history of public education. In a new report from The Data Center, they argue New Orleans public schools have failed to realize their original democratic ideals.

New Orleans' public education system was set up in the 1840's with the help of Horace Mann, an early champion of public education from Massachussetts. The purpose was to unify the diverse populations that comprised 19th-century New Orleans by educating their children together. Data Center researchers found that ideal was never fully realized because of segregation, and because since integration, white families have largely opted out of the public school system. Today just 7-percent of students in New Orleans public schools are white.

WWNO’s Jess Clark sat down with UNO professor Brian Beabout to talk about the Data Center report he co-authored.

Below is a Q&A based on their conversation. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: You argue that Horace Mann's original rationale for creating public schools has never been fully realized. Why?

The fundamental tenent of Mann's theory is that public schools should be a place where the community shares their resources for universal participation in a public institution.  In 1840's New Orleans "universal" participation excluded enslaved children, but included white children and free children of color. But since the creation of New Orleans public schools, there has never been a moment when the vast majority of our white population and the vast majority of our black population all participated in the public school system at the same time. It's shifted who is served and who is not, but we've failed for almost 200 years now to create a system that is attractive and tax-supported enough for everyone to participate. 

"If we're going to have a reform that works and is sustainable, it's going to be through that democratic process, as messy, and slow and painful as that often is."

Q: Are there some things you've taken from the past that help you think about how we can improve the state of public education in New Orleans today?

Yeah, it was illuminating. Over 200 years, we haven't found a way to make the city serve a broad swath of students in the public schools. We had forced integration in the Reconstruction period shortly after the Civil War. That was short lived, but showed relatively positive results. And that integration was quickly undone. What happened was they didn't have democratic consensus to create integrated schools that way, much like we didn't have democratic consensus to bring the Recovery School District in in 2005 and 2006. So I think one of the lessons there is that bureaucratically enchanced change in the absence of a democractic sustainable change is likely to have a lot of kickback. And so if we're going to have a reform that works and is sustainable, it's going to be through that democratic process, as messy and slow and painful as that often is.

"To think that the job of our K-12 school system is to produce students who score higher on tests is wrongheaded and dangerous."

Q: A lot of the inequities that we see play out in New Orleans public schools, aren't they the products of these larger racial inequities that we have in this city? And can you really make change in New Orleans Public schools without addressing the broader issues in our society? 

A: I think charter schools as a reform strategy were politically attractive because they were seen as a "schools-only" strategy: we can eliminate social inequities via closing racial achievement gaps, boosting college attendance, and all will be well. Most evidence suggests that that's not the case. And I think to think that the job of our K-12 school system is to produce students who score higher on tests is wrongheaded and dangerous. I think creating healthier, stronger communities where students can participate actively in the community they live in is really the goal of a public education system.

Q: How do we involve the community more in the democratic process of making schools?

A: One way is to ensure that we're developing the teacher pipeline locally.

Two is to ensure charter board members are representative of the schools they govern. Research indicates there's vast demographic differences between the students who attend a charter school and the board that governs it. Boards tend to be wealthier and whiter. Having a more representative makeup on our charter school boards would provide more stability, and provide a wider, longer view of the educational goals that we care about.

And the third way is using a strategy of longterm school improvement, rather than punish, close and restart, which has been one of the key strategies of the charter school model. If a school doesn't operate well, you close it and turn it over to someone who you hope will do a better job, or who has a track record of doing a better job.  In fact, what we need is schools that have more stability. We ought to have a primary strategy of 'how do we make the schools better for the students they serve?' There isn't really a district capacity to do that.