Carr has followed the New Orleans school story for the last six years as an education reporter for the Times-Picayune and a Spencer Education Journalism fellow at Columbia University. She currently serves as a contributing editor at the Hechinger Report.
The following prologue sets the stage for her year spent immersed in the disparate lives of the family, the teacher, and the administrator.
By Sarah Carr
They met in the most neutral site that could be found: a New Orleans funeral home. There, just feet from caskets, urns, and rosaries, two competing visions for the future of America’s poor and dispossessed collided.
The issue at hand, a proposal to turn Joseph A. Craig Elementary School into a charter school, drew dozens of parents, children, teachers, and community leaders from the surrounding neighborhood called Treme. At first, the gathering in March 2010 seemed routine and parochial. Teachers came concerned about their jobs. Parents needed to know if Craig would stay open. Neighborhood residents wanted to ensure the school’s name remained the same.
The conversation that night quickly devolved into a public battle between two African-American men who, on the surface, had much in common. Both were lifelong New Orleanians who grew up attending the city’s public schools. Both stood over six feet tall. Both were community luminaries well-known for their devotion to educating the city’s thousands of schoolchildren. And both Jerome Smith and Tony Recasner brought the best of intentions to the meeting at the funeral home that night.
Tony Recasner had the look and bearing of a professor: tall, thin, and bespectacled, with a neatly trimmed mustache and a soft, friendly voice. As children squirmed and Craig’s existing teachers looked on skeptically, he described the proposal to turn Craig into a charter school. Craig had been failing Treme’s children for decades. It failed to meet minimum standards for academic performance when the Orleans Parish School Board ran it before Hurricane Katrina. And state intervention after the flood did little to change that pattern. FirstLine, the organization Recasner helped create, posted superior results at the two charter schools it already ran in New Orleans.
Recasner, a trained school psychologist, cofounded the city’s first charter school in 1998; he hoped the increased flexibility afforded charters would allow him to better serve children. Some criticized him for leaving only one foot in the black community as he allied himself with many white business and political leaders in his efforts to change the education system. Now, four and a half years after Katrina, the movement Recasner had helped start prevailed: A coalition of local power brokers, backed by several of the nation’s wealthiest foundations and top politicians, moved quickly to charter the city’s schools.
At heart, many of the reformers were technocrats. They believed unelected experts, not politicians, should run the schools, and that decisions should be based on science and data, not relationships or tradition. But some of their language was anything but technocratic. They considered their cause the civil rights movement of the twenty-first century and often described themselves as part of “the Movement.”
The meeting about Craig’s future took place in the Charbonnet-Labat- Glapion Funeral Home, one of the country’s oldest black-run parlors. Throughout the 1960s, civil rights leaders met secretly in African-American funeral homes to coordinate their efforts and find common cause. But rapprochement proved elusive that March night a half century later.
With ample knowledge of how quickly New Orleans public gatherings can turn into raucous shouting matches, Recasner tried to keep this one calm and focused on the issues at hand as he fielded questions about class size, teacher hiring, and whether a new Craig would accept children with severe emotional and academic needs. He kept his responses polite but brief. When one woman delivered a lengthy tirade about the quality of special education programs for disabled children at some charter schools, Recasner responded: “At the schools we operate, that would not be your experience.”
Jerome Smith took a very different view and approach. Whereas Recasner had a psychologist’s conciliatory, gentle-mannered air, Smith brought a preacher’s fiery passion. He had been an activist since childhood, risking his life to ride public buses into the Deep South as a Freedom Rider in the early 1960s. During one ride, mobs of white bigots in McComb, Mississippi, used brass knuckles to beat him bloody and near unconscious. He believed in confrontation, tribe, and tradition as devoutly as Recasner favored compromise and pragmatism.
In recent years Smith had devoted himself to protecting modest corners of the Treme, walling them off from interference by the city’s white elites or business leaders. In these forgotten pockets, he worked to teach children about the city’s black culture. He ran the Treme Community Center, where neighborhood youngsters learned, among other things, about the Mardi Gras Indians: For a century and a half at least, self-described “gangs” of black men in New Orleans toil for months each year sewing elaborate suits of feathers and beads, an homage to the Native Americans who, according to their lore, assisted African-Americans during slavery. The gangs don their suits for a few annual events, including Mardi Gras, where they compete to see whose suit is “prettiest.” Smith liked to point out that the men choose to emulate the Native Americans partly because the Indians refused to bow down.
Smith wore his trademark jeans, plaid shirt, and crocheted prayer cap to the funeral home that night. He stood in front of Recasner as he spoke, alternating his comments between general concerns and personal attacks. He decried Recasner’s collaboration with white politicians and businessmen, recalling that his own mother would not even let the white insurance collector through her front door. After declaring, “My strength comes from growing up here,” Smith, who attended Craig as a child, told Recasner the charter school founder had become a foreigner on the streets of his hometown.
During the meeting about Craig, Smith echoed many of the usual criticisms lobbied against New Orleans charter schools: They don’t educate the most challenging students. “Businessmen,” “corporations,” and “outsiders” run them. Their backers disregard the will and input of the communities they serve. “I am not against charter—it’s just a word,” he said. “But . . . we have to control our own destiny.”
Recasner looked Smith in the eye throughout the tirade. He tilted his head slightly every so often as if to acknowledge, yet not agree, with the words leveled at him. Those present sensed Smith’s deepest ire was re- served for Paul Vallas, the white school superintendent who had asked FirstLine to take over Craig but did not show up at the meeting. In Vallas’s absence, Recasner received the verbal assault.
In the end, many proponents of charter schools felt more convinced than before that opponents like Smith were rabble-rousers who cared more about tradition and control than the quality of schools. In their view, Smith failed to realize their effort was the next stage in the push for racial equality the old Freedom Rider had once led.
Smith’s perspective hardened as well. In subsequent conversations he continued to refer to charter leaders as businessmen. But he added a darker implication as well. The “external management organizations” that run charter schools “are being given access to [school] buildings like it’s cargo, like it’s a slave ship,” he said.
It was an inauspicious way to start, or end, a dialogue: Some viewed turning Craig elementary into a charter school as a victory for the civil rights movement; others likened the prospect to modern-day slavery. The very terms of the conversation incited mistrust.
My thoughts returned again and again to that night in the funeral home as I immersed myself in New Orleans classrooms during the months that followed. The issues the meeting raised became questions I asked throughout my reporting and writing: why people with the best of intentions can fight so bitterly; what principles and beliefs divide them; and how language can push them further apart. The debate over Craig helped frame my understanding of the conflict over urban education in New Orleans and across the country.
Partly because of that evening, I came to view the conflict as less about entrenched partisan politics than competing visions for how to combat racial inequality in America. Those visions, framed initially in the decades after Reconstruction by Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, have evolved and shifted over time with the changing context, and it would be facile to argue that a complete personification of either man’s arguments exists today. Yet they continue to shape the debate over most of modern America’s most pressing social issues, including education, housing policy, affirmative action, welfare, and race relations. According to one vision, which many leaders of the modern education reform movement accept, poor minorities will rise out of poverty and thrive only if they find a way to fit into the country’s capitalistic traditions and outlook. This vision, championed initially by Washington, is pragmatic in its approach and puts more emphasis on blacks finding a home in the nation’s economic structures than political ones. It prioritizes collaboration with whites, and finding solutions that are acceptable to both races.
The other vision is, like Jerome Smith, more confrontational in its approach. Its adherents do not believe that blacks should try to fit themselves into an agenda defined by white elites. Instead they should set their own agenda, using their own rules, on their own turf. This vision prioritizes political over economic capital, and has helped foster the black power and nationalism movements. It disregards compromise and appeasement under the tenet that what the white power structure deems acceptable—in this case, charter schools—will usually be bad for blacks.
I saw these contrasting ideals reverberate in the hopes and experiences of the people whose lives I chronicled in the schools: Mary Laurie, a veteran principal; Aidan Kelly, a young teacher; and fourteen-year-old Geraldlynn Stewart and her family. Each of them grappled at times with the same tensions over racial autonomy versus collaboration, self-determination versus appeasement, and tradition versus change that formed the basis for the dispute over Craig. But inside the schools, the war over education no longer seems so stark and clearly defined. Edges blur, shades of gray abound, and simple solutions prove elusive.
Unlike most literature about New Orleans, this book focuses on what makes the city ordinary rather than extraordinary.
A majority of the events that have prompted an enduring dialogue on race have transcended a single place and date. They have been epic in scope and sweep: the travails of Reconstruction, the mid-twentieth-century migration of black citizens from the rural South to the urban North, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, even though it was confined to a specific place and time, briefly seemed as if it too might lead Americans of all colors to see and examine race and poverty in new ways. But like the floodwaters, the nation’s attention receded, leaving behind people more conscious than ever of their own fragility, yet uncertain how to feel whole again.
After a time, the fleeting sense that what happened in New Orleans was emblematic of something more universal largely disappeared. If the rest of the country thought about New Orleans at all, it tended to view the city as a physical anachronism at worst, doomed in an era of global warming, receding shorelines, and government budget woes; or, at best, as a treasured cultural outpost deserving of special attention and protection. With so much focus on the city’s unique geography and traditions, the country lost sight of how the city’s near destruction might carry broader lessons. It lost sight of New Orleans not as an exceptional American city, but as one whose decayed infrastructure, overwhelmed social services, long-simmering racial tensions, and gross inequities make it perversely American.
And just as the disaster exemplified our government’s widespread failure to protect its most vulnerable, the stumbling recovery of New Orleans can be read as a parable for what happens when well-intentioned, deeply divided people try to make things right. Some of the divide is political. But what separates the staunchest supporters of charter schools from their staunchest critics is often less about contrasting politics than about how our race, class, and differing life experiences shape our beliefs and understanding. It’s harder to talk about these divides because we must venture out of political realms and into more personal ones, and the risk of offense rises. Too often we aren’t even speaking the same language from the start.
FirstLine’s leaders ultimately demurred from doing battle over Craig, saying they would not pursue the school without broad community support. Over the next year, similar scenes and tensions played out repeatedly in the debate over the future of urban schools, both in New Orleans and across the country.
The charter school leaders who followed Recasner in New Orleans— many of them, unlike him, white transplants to the city—encountered the vestiges of a public school system that had remarkably and tragically failed the community for decades in the city’s undereducated children. Faced with sixteen-year-olds who could not read or do math at even the most basic elementary level, faced with thousands of students doomed to bottom-rung, minimum-wage jobs or worse, who can blame them for supporting the annihilation of the old system? Who can blame them for seeking a clean slate and a fresh start?
But Jerome Smith and other skeptics had watched time and again as progress for the city’s elites and white community led to pain in the black community. They saw a city whose economic survival depended on tour- ism in a state where many small towns relied on prison jobs. Failing New Orleans public schools supplied a steady stream of low-wage workers and prisoners. For decades they had already wondered: Were the schools set up to fail? And why, if they looked to history as a guide, would this latest push for progress be any different?
Many of the most powerful people in the country have a plan for the future of education in America, one focused on more charter schools, technocratic governance, weakened teachers’ unions, and the relentless use of data to measure student and teacher progress. New Orleans offers a test case, on an unprecedented scale, of how this vision plays out—of what works, what does not work, and for whom. The debate over urban education in America, crystallized in New Orleans, speaks to broad, deeply rooted tensions in our country over what the civil rights movement should look like in the twenty-first century and who should lead it. It speaks to fundamental disagreements over how the push for racial equality should proceed, at a time when the end goal remains as elusive as ever. And it speaks to a nationwide loss of trust—in our public institutions, each other, and ourselves. At its heart, this is the story of one community’s painful struggle—in the wake of one of the most tragic disasters in our history—to rebuild that trust.