It’s hard to say the right thing about New Orleans’ schools, but they will die (again) if we don’t

New Orleans’ public schools are in the process of becoming something new.

The “unification” of its post-Katrina system of charter schools with its pre-Katrina governance structure administered by the Orleans Parish School Board promises to produce something never seen before: a reformed school district with democratic oversight, but with full site-based autonomy.

The chief question for unification is whether it can reconcile the cultural and economic disputes that have dogged reform for the past 13 years?

I’m hopeful, but not sure the well is dry of incidents that will call that question again and again.

As an example, this week a revered education leader in New Orleans has been ordered to step down as CEO of her 9th ward school.

Doris Roche-Hicks has been under investigation by Louisiana Board of Ethics for the past few years, accused of putting her sister, daughter, son-in-law and other family members on her charter school’s payroll.

Now, the board has decided to strip her of her position. That isn’t a simple case of justice served.

Hicks, esteemed and rooted in the community, is one of few black education leaders who not only survived but also thrived during the remaking of NOLA education after hurricane Katrina. She has earned awards locally and nationally for her leadership and has sat on numerous boards.

Obama’s White House called her a “champion of change” who was an “avatar of the Lower Ninth Ward.”

Her takedown is no small matter.

In the past, I’ve joked that there is no word for an alcoholic in Creole (I based that on family musings). As an addition to that sentiment, I might say there is no word for nepotism either. Everyone in New Orleans is family, and family looks out for each other – sometimes to questionable ends.

A few years ago while doing interviews and focus groups in New Orleans I heard parents and educators speak about the old culture of the public school system where jobs and contracts were doled out based on “who you know, not what you know.” The matter-of-fact way that they talked about widespread grift was a sad signal of a people adjusted to having a government without structural integrity, not because they deserved that, but because it was all there ever was.

I know to poke that sore spot is a transgression.

There is a way we’re supposed to talk about the schools of New Orleans, and I’m failing at it. There is one story we’re supposed to tell, one where our people have been uniformly valiant, and reformers have been the opposite.

We are supposed to talk about the schools of the past with revisionism and sympathy.

We are supposed to say the waters of Katrina washed away a culturally competent school district, and when those waters receded the city was an opportune disaster area for racially inept and dangerously wealthy people hell-bent on remaking the city with McKinsey and Company PowerPoints.

Our code requires us to restate the story about reformers who fired 7,000 black public school employees and replaced them with an army of young white gentrifiers who, just by their presence and their palates, have spurred a scourge of San Francisco styled eateries that can’t seem to make a decent gumbo.

I am under gentle orders by my people to tell you about the gushing river of new money that showered a reanimated system of schools, and how that riptide of dollars created a cottage industry of job titles that never existed before.

I’m not supposed to talk about our areas that needed improvement.

I understand. There is a good reason to excuse our shortcomings. Our detractors weaponize scandal lore to prove our unpreparedness for self-rule, self-determination, and full humanity.

It’s their license to govern us without consent. In that way, calling ourselves out for scandal is a call for our colonization.

We are right to expose the pain reform has wrought. We are right to mourn a city’s culture that will never return.

Most of those complaints are well-supported even if some of the hostility to the changes in public education spring from the organic and indigenous passions of a city that celebrates and fusses with equal vitality.

Still, it would be our weakest spot if we can never admit fault out of fear that it will become our noose.

I’ve been asked to stop saying the day before Katrina the New Orleans Public Schools were the most corrupt in the United States. I shouldn’t mention the investigations, arrests, and convictions for insurance kickback schemes and other fraud by teachers, secretaries, and para-educators guilty of far more than nepotism.

Telling those stories paints us as corruptible devils, but, if true, not revealing those stories makes us unbelievable saints.

Neither works.

We are varied: we’re a people of bow ties and saggy pants; we are geniuses who build cities and thieves who burn them down; we are saved by faith and godlessly unchurched, and we are everything between those contrasts.

The point is we are people, and every people are complicated. Only beasts are thought of merely as meat without souls. We are real, not magic and not beasts. Human.

Stripped of all sophistry and vanity, the hidden reality in all of our negotiations with public institutions should achieve one thing: power. Who has it, how is it used, and what difference does it make in the lives of people who need change?

Who will decide what the children of New Orleans will learn, from how and where they will learn it, and who will do the teaching?

For more than a decade many have said the power was out of the hands of the people. With schools beneath the authority of a democratically elected school board that will change.

That’s power, but it comes with responsibility.

There can be no free passes for the people of yesterday who ran schools that weren’t educating children before the storm and there indeed can’t be any passes for those Chief Executive Officers who run schools today that do equally as poorly.

If unification succeeds at anything, I hope it’s making people of every political, social, and racial stripe responsible for producing better results for students.

That is what will decide if the spirit of New Orleans lives on in a purer form, or if the ghost of its past – recent and distant – will haunt the best-laid plans.

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