Holder, Duncan asked to investigate ‘racially discriminatory’ school closings in New Orleans


People line up in the rain outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington in April 2014. (REUTERS/Gary Cameron/Files )

This week marks the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that was intended to strike down the “separate but equal” doctrine that codified racism in America’s public schools. You can read a report here about what it has and has not accomplished. Following is an open letter (see full text below) to Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan from a national organization called Journey for Justice Alliance requesting that they investigate “racially discriminatory school closings” in New Orleans.

New Orleans is often held up as a model of school reform that can be adopted by other cities. But the facts on the ground tell a different story about the success of the Recovery School District’s reform program, which called for closing traditional schools and opening charter schools. But the charters have not performed anywhere near as well as reformers often say. And the comparisons that people make between New Orleans schools before and after Hurricane Katrina are like comparing apples and oranges, given that the student population in New Orleans changed considerably after Katrina.

Journey for Justice is a coalition of grass-roots organizations in 22 American cities formed to fight the privatization of public education. The letter says in part (with footnotes removed):

Three months after Katrina, the Louisiana legislature passed Act 35 allowing the state-run Recovery School District (“RSD”) to take over 107 New Orleans public schools previously controlled by the Orleans Parish School Board (“OPSB”). OPSB then fired over 7,500 school employees, including 4,000 teachers. The stated goal of Act 35 was to allow the RSD to “meet the educational needs of all students residing in the jurisdiction of the transferring school system.” This did not happen. What did happen was the implementation of RSD’s real agenda to privatize public  education by recklessly closing or converting all district-run schools.

The results of that plan are clear: in May 2014, RSD will close the last five public schools and become the first all-charter district in the nation. RSD told parents and community members that it was closing schools to improve the educational outcomes and increase academic achievement, but that was false. Today, most students in RSD still attend underperforming or failing schools.

As cities across America are hailing the New Orleans “experiment” as a national example of  “education reform,” and profit-driven investors, researchers and philanthropists claim “victory,” many African-American New Orleanians tell a cautionary tale. Most African-American students are still trapped in failing or near-failing public schools, experience a deeper, more severe form of  charter school “pushout” and exclusion, and have been forced into classrooms with an increased reliance on high-stakes testing.

The vast majority of public schools closed by RSD in the past five years were in poor and working class, African-American neighborhoods—communities that were hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina and, even before the storm, had experienced years of disinvestment, over-incarceration, and unemployment. Closing these schools on the heels of Katrina has been a second storm for these communities. Many of the schools existed for over a hundred years before being closed and had been attended by multiple generations in one family. These schools employed teachers and administrators who have taught in our communities for decades—staff who hold community knowledge, understand the hardships that face our students, and pass down our shared values. These schools have been cornerstones in our communities. And after everything that we lost in Katrina, it has been devastating to lose our schools as well.

This complaint is filed with the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education (“OCR”) and the Educational Opportunities Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division (“DOJ”). We file this complaint pursuant to Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on behalf of African-American students enrolled at the last five remaining district-run public schools in RSD scheduled to close in May 2014: Banneker ES, Tureaud ES, Cohen HS, Carver HS and Reed HS.11 This complaint alleges two separate, but related claims. First, complainants challenge the State of Louisiana’s policy and practice of subjecting African-American students to school closures at much higher rates than White students. Second, complainants challenge the State’s policy and practice of discriminating against African-American students by failing to provide adequate educational alternatives once their schools were closed. In essence, the State has robbed these children of their neighborhood schools while keeping them trapped in failing, underperforming schools. This complaint is also filed on behalf of students who would have attended these schools in the future had they not been closed, and the parents, teachers, and communities who have been impacted by these closures.

It also says:

This policy and practice of choosing to close, rather than invest in, schools disparately impacts African-American students, teachers, and communities. African-American students  comprise roughly 82% of all public school students in New Orleans, but are 96.64% of the students in the five schools slated to close. The White student population in the schools slated to close is less than 0.64%. Of the students impacted by these last five school closures, approximately 1,000 are African-American students and only approximately 5 are White students.

The closures of these last five district-run schools disparately impact African-American students and were decided in violation of RSD’s own standards. Under Louisiana law, a school in the RSD that fails to meet performance criteria after five years “must be restructure[d] or close[d]” unless the school has implemented an intervention plan that has resulted in recent score increases of at least five points. According to Louisiana’s performance metric, three of the five schools scheduled to close at the end of the 2013-2014 school year received passing scores for at least two consecutive years prior to RSD’s decision to close that school.  Nearly all of the schools had shown consistent improvements in student performance.

The Letter

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | May 14