My family is from New Orleans. My father and his siblings grew up in a white neighborhood, intentionally zoned, and attended all-white schools in the 1920s and ’30s, also intentionally zoned. In the 1950s, they relocated to neighboring St. Bernard Parish, as did many white residents of New Orleans. My mother also grew up in New Orleans and relocated to St. Bernard, where she attended an all-white high school. She was a freshman in 1960, and just when Ruby Bridges became the first Black child to attend New Orleans’s all-white William Frantz Elementary School, St. Bernard opened a school on the St. Bernard-Orleans parish line expressly to allow white residents of New Orleans to use vouchers to escape federally mandated integration of the city’s public schools. Found to have circumvented integration orders, the school was forced to close a year later. But anti-Black sentiment never waned, and decades of white flight from New Orleans followed. Meanwhile, the state diligently set about eliminating economic advancement opportunities for the remaining Black population, limiting employment and housing options while cutting back drastically on education. Soon enough, the city was bereft of a Black middle class and the tax base needed to fund basic services, including public schools. And so, as one might logically expect, the public education situation in New Orleans became dire.
I still live in southern Louisiana, where I teach at a public school, and I have yet to hear any authoritative white voice acknowledge responsibility for the oppression generated by white-citizen resistance to Black-citizen advancement. I wondered if any such acknowledgment would appear in Douglas N. Harris’s book about the successful “reform” of New Orleans public schools since the state took over after Hurricane Katrina, titled Charter School City: What the End of Traditional Public Schools in New Orleans Means for American Education. The answer is no.
Harris, the director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans and a professor of economics at Tulane University, focuses instead on data—specifically, on test scores and graduation rates in the years prior to the devastating 2005 storm and in the years that followed, from 2006 to 2015. By his accounting, the numbers went up post-Katrina, which he credits to intervention by the state in the form of charter-school initiatives. Now, data can be compelling, and reformers will often point to metrics like improved test scores to make the case for charter schools. But when I look at the data Harris cites, I think of the audit that’s being conducted at the request of the New Orleans superintendent of schools because of missing test scores and irregularities in high-school transcripts and class credits. I think of the numerous lawsuits calling for the Louisiana Department of Education—which was then run by a champion of the charter reform efforts in New Orleans—to release suspect testing data for independent review. So I can’t say I have confidence in the integrity of the data that Harris has analyzed.