The Political Theatrics of False Community Engagement: Who’s Playing Whom in Education Downtown? Thursday, Jul 28 2011 

At a recent education summit at the healing Center on Saint Claude Avenue, Ms. Karran Harper Royal, an educational advocate, spoke frankly about the false community engagement that has become the norm in the post-Katrina educational reform environment and the battles between public schools controlled by the Recovery School District (RSD) and Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB).  She was critical of public forums that were simply staged to check off the community engagement box while closed-door decisions had already been made concerning what neighborhood was going to get what school.
She addressed the frustrations of false processes that have exhausted many communities across the city, where they have been told that their engagement was crucial to the decision-making procedure for schools in their neighborhoods—only to learn that a charter model not of their choice was moving in.  For community members in attendance from the St. Roch, Marigny, and Bywater neighborhoods, her comments could not have been more sobering.  Many concerned families in these three historic neighborhoods have been struggling with the RSD over what charter model was going into the Colton School Building, which is under reconstruction.
Describing the actual rebuilding at Colton a “renovation” is a stretch.  Sadly, the historic building is undergoing a destruction process, and it has been literally stripped to an empty concrete shell of its once regal redbrick imposing and historical characteristics.  I live two blocks from Colton on Saint Claude Avenue, and it breaks my heart everyday I pass the destruction site.  However, that’s another story altogether.
This story continues with another educational gathering concerning the Colton site and the corporate-for-profit educational behemoth know as KIPP, whose acronym stands for Knowledge is Power Program.  Apparently, KIPP is not only all-powerful but also all-knowing of the future to come because it blatantly claims the Colton facility on its web site as its own—as a done deal.  The flyer distributed at its recent Monday, July 25th meeting, where the new RSD Superintendent Mr. John White spoke, claims it again.  It literally states “Colton will house KIPP New Orleans Leadership Academy and Primary (KNOLA), temporarily operating in the Frederick Douglass Building (alongside KIPP Renaissance High School) in 2012.  At KIPP, we believe that communities and schools are partners in serving children.”
It continues, “Altogether, families living near Colton are choosing a KIPP education, making the voice of the community clear: KIPP operates schools that the people in the neighborhood want.”  It looks like the KIPP Corporate leadership team forgot to tell that to Mr. White, who clearly stated that before making a decision on Colton, he was also open to hearing from a neighborhood group that was creating their own charter.  He candidly opened by saying, “I think in the past my organization has not always done the best job of being transparent.”  He expressed “deep regrets” about questionable decision making processes that have affected neighborhood families and their children.  Quite convincingly, he portrayed himself as a leader committed to hearing all sides before making any decisions on what school gets what facility.
So who is playing whom here?  Was Mr. White putting on a public show, and did he not see the flier that KIPP distributed to all who entered the Douglass Building presentation hall?  Was this just another episode of false community engagement?  For all his seemingly genuine talk about listening to all sides from the community at large, and after more than half an hour of numerous orchestrated testimonials from KIPP parents proclaiming how great the school was for their children, Mr. White finished by saying that he was open to hearing from other community members in attendance, but that only three minutes were left.
Mr. White’s charismatic and candid approach had me convinced he was a new breed of RSD leader, but when he left all of three minutes for anyone else to question KIPP or him, it was obvious that the community was being played.  Unfortunately, it became even more apparent when I asked a critical question about whether KIPP hires novice non-union teachers who are unprepared, and in doing so have helped to cripple the African American Teachers’ Union in New Orleans.  I asked a direct hard question because these are hard times.  Our children’s future demand hard questions about who is properly prepared to take on the monumental responsibility of educating them.
Mr. White’s mood turned.  His lips became pursed, and he was dismissive of my question by simply asking the KIPP crowd, “Do you have good teachers here?”  They roared a resounding yes.  It was expected like an eerily orchestrated event, where questioning the all-mighty KIPP was not part of the community engagement process.  I continued with my line of questioning and referred to an article in the American Independent, which quoted a Southern Poverty Law Center study about many charters’ suspect security measures.  KIPP was the biggest culprit with draconian punishment of their students written into their guidebook.
Mr. White responded abruptly, “You are bringing politics into an environment that’s about kids and parents, and it’s an unfortunate occurrence.”  Dismissively, he looked away and ended the three-minutes for the community to ask questions.  He made a political choice to shut down any line of questioning that challenged KIPP, whose educational practices he applauded time and time again during his ample time professing his more “transparent” strategy to hear all sides of the educational debate.
How is it not a political struggle when the article I referenced is from a section called “State Politics in Context,” and the renowned SPLC, whose Civil Rights and social justice practices are about challenging the bad politics that affect people of color?  The RSD itself is a state governance agency from Baton Rouge, and its making political decisions on education reform in New Orleans post-Katrina.  The questions were concerned with accountability of a corporate charter that is awarded millions in public funds generated by the taxes collected from homeowners like myself.  Mr. White’s job is to develop just policies on what charters get what facilities.  It sounds like politics, but it is looking more like the same dubious politics that we, the people, have struggled with since the RSD took control of our neighborhood schools.
Colton is two blocks away from the home I own with my wife and two little boys, and the KIPP corporate charter model is not the type of school I want in my neighborhood.  The taxes I pay will go to support them, whether I want them or not.  The families in the immediate area of Colton envision a different charter model, one dramatically in contrast to KIPP and the offensive presumptuous that “all people in the neighborhood” have chosen them.  The KIPP propaganda flyer is attached.  Read for yourselves and forward it to Mr. White.  Post it on your face book accounts and distribute it to your own cyber communities.
We are being played all over again.  This is not a time for civility.  This is a time for outrage.  This is a time to demand that policy makers like Mr. White give us more than three minutes and the theatrical politics of public lip service as part of more false community engagement.
Ashé y adelante gente!
José Torres-Tama
ArteFuturo Productions
New Orleans, LA 70117
“Make art that matters!”
This is a guest blog from a gentleman I met at a community meeting last week.   I am very pleased to have inspired Mr. Torres-Tama to write this piece.   This is exactly the kind of community push back that we need  to truly reform our public education system.  We can’t allow “Fake Community Involvement”  to go unchecked.
Thank you very much Mr. Torres-Tama

Abramson Scandal Proves Democracy is the Only Solution Friday, Jul 22 2011 

A recent story on the Abramson Charter school scandal highlighted a fired state education official’s recommendations of better oversight of charters. I think it is safe to assume that the anti-democracy privatizers will spin this scandal into an argument for a special appointed board to oversee charters. We have to be anticipate and refute that argument before it takes hold.

If anything, the Abramson scandal demonstrates how appointed oversight officials are not effective and cannot ensure quality education and safe schools. Their credibility and position is dependent on presenting a public image of success and integrity for the pro-charter special interest groups. The “charter czar” concept has proved to be a failure in terms of transparency and oversight, and any appointed “privy council” will fail for the same reasons. Only locally elected officials are accountable to the public that pays for and uses public education. Unlike appointed officials and boards, elected officials can be recalled or replaced by the public. In New Orleans, the only solution to charter corruption and inequality is to return oversight to the Orleans Parish School Board which has already proven to be a self-correcting institution.

Democracy has produced it’s share of failures, but before Katrina, allegations like the ones against Abramson would have immediately been known to the parents and the board. The cure for democracy’s flaws is more democracy.

Failure is the only outcome of appointed officials charged with regulating privatized organizations that regard regulation as a violation of free market principles. That is why it has taken outside organizations like Southern Poverty Law Center, Research on Reforms, The American Independent, and other media to make public the abuses of the charter system. That these organizations did what the appointed officials would not do is the best argument for local board control.

Finally, we need to end the practice of charters firing teachers at-will (without cause). Without a union, teachers fear reporting charter mismanagement, corruption, abuses and even alleged rapes. Absent union protections, we need state laws to protect teachers from retaliatory firings for simply criticizing charter management and practices. The charters want to fire teacher at-will because they believe any government regulation encroaches on their market prerogatives. It is impossible to have transparency in public education if teachers don’t have the right to speak their minds and act according to their conscience without fear of reprisals.

The notion that the elected government, and only the elected government, has the common good as it’s responsibility and mission needs to be made crystal clear. Market–driven organizations, be they for-profit or non-profit, are guided by the bottom line and the financial survival instinct–not the welfare of our children or the desire for equitable education opportunities.
Guest Blog Post by:
Lance Hill, Ph.d.
Follow Dr. Hill on Twitter @LanceHill2011