OPINION: In New Orleans School,Segregation and Inequity Persist

In the year 1865, the Louisiana legislature began implementing laws that paved the way for racial segregation. These laws were known as black codes and had historically regulated the autonomy of slaves. The black codes were more prominent in northern Louisiana cities. However, in southern Louisiana cities, such as New Orleans, African-Americans experienced much more autonomy. In New Orleans, public schools had successfully been integrated until the year 1877 (Woodward, 2001).

The state of Louisiana was one of the first states to adopt Jim Crow Laws. African-American New Orleanians were struggling with accepting the institutionalization of Jim Crow laws, considering the autonomy that blacks had experienced in New Orleans during Reconstruction. Motivated by the unnerving discomfort associated with accepting this marginalized social position perpetuated by these laws, New Orleanians began what has been a long history of the fight for equity across access to resources and opportunities for African-Americans in New Orleans.  

In the year 1890, the New Orleans African-American community was outraged by a new Louisiana law that required that blacks and whites travel in separate cars of the railroad. In 1892, community members (a group of civic-minded African-American males) chose to exercise this outrage by mobilizing and identifying an individual that would refuse to be removed from the white only car (Kauper, 1954). The individual was 30 year old Homer Plessy. Plessy was a 1/8 black male who resembled the appearance of a white male. Plessy was arrested for his refusal to be removed from the car, and he was jailed for his actions. This historical event was known as the Plessy vs. Ferguson case. In this case, Plessy’s lawyer argued that the Separate Car Act violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment. The case moved up to the Supreme Court, and in 1896 it was ruled that segregation in America was constitutional (Kauper, 1954).

The Plessy vs. Ferguson case set the precedent for the separate but equal doctrine. The doctrine upheld that separate facilities for blacks and whites, including public schools, was constitutional as long as those facilities were “equal.”  (Kauper, 1954) This notion of equity across facilities was a fallacy. Black public schools received far less funding than white public schools.

In a 1902 report written to New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Warren Easton, Assistant Superintendent Nicholas Bauer stated the following:

…to teach the negro is a different problem. His natural ability is that of low character and it is possible to bring him to a certain level beyond which it is impossible to carry him. That point is the fifth grade of our schools (Bauer, 1902)

The statements in the report are reflective of the ideological perspective that blacks are inferior to whites in academics, and that because of this inferiority, whites are responsible for the control of the academic mobility of blacks. Moreover, it asserts that there exists a glass ceiling of capacity to excel academically for blacks, and that this ceiling is the 5th grade. The Assistant Superintendent uses race to justify bias in educating one race over another. If these ideological thoughts were reflective of those governing policies for academic institutions, how could these officials be expected to ensure equity as it relates to quality of education for a race deemed as less than, academically?

In the 1950’s, Thurgood Marshall led the NAACP’s legal efforts to challenge the separate but equal doctrine by asserting that it violated the 14th Ammendment of equal protection. The Supreme Court heard a series of cases and, in 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, it was ruled that that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional (Patterson, 2001. The Separate but equal doctrine was overturned, and the 14th amendment was used to overturn the doctrine, just as the 14th amendment had been used in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case (Patterson, 2001).

In New Orleans, the desegregation of schools did not occur until 1960, although the separate but equal doctrine had been overturned 6 years prior. The overturning of the doctrine was met with much resistance, and because of this resistance, a U.S. District Court judge had to order the desegregation of the New Orleans public schools, grade by grade (Ogletree, 2004).   The historical event that marked the desegregation of New Orleans schools was, the then 6 year old Ruby Bridges, integrating William Frantz Elementary School.

Occurring at the same time of the desegregation of New Orleans public schools was white flight to the suburbs (Landphair, 2007). As a result of white flight, the racial demographics of New Orleans began to shift and the proportion of the New Orleans African-American population grew from 37% in 1960 to 55% by 1980. By the early 1970’s, African-American children accounted for more than 70% of the New Orleans Public Schools population (Landphair, 2007).  

After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) laid off approximately 3,000 staff and 4,000 teachers. The Louisiana Department of Education took over more than 107 out of the 128 New Orleans Public Schools. The New Orleans public education system transitioned into a predominately all charter system, under the then newly formed Recovery School District.

Eleven years after Act 35 was passed, which allowed the state to takeover Orleans Parish Schools that met the state’s newly created criteria for “failing”, on May 10, 2016, Governor John Bel Edwards signed SB 432 (now Act 91) into law. This legislation codified the reunification of Orleans Parish public schools under the oversight of the Orleans Parish School Board and its Superintendent. Today, New Orleans has an unprecedented percentage of charter schools, positioning the city as having the largest percentage of charter schools in the country. The current New Orleans public education system is comprised primarily of autonomous schools directly run by charter management groups, and the Orleans Parish School Board provides oversight of those schools.

New Orleans has a long-standing history of public school segregation and racial and educational inequalities. Charter schools, operating under the guise of school choice, have not redressed the educational inequalities that were born out of the city’s historical legacy of structural racism and white supremacy.  Sixty-five years post Brown vs. Board of Education, the pervasive and enduring issue of public school segregation in New Orleans persists.

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