No, we're not done with Kristen McQueary's Katrina essay yet

It’s been a week since Kristen McQueary posted that crazy essay wishing and praying for a Katrina-like scourge to hit the city. A week since social media networks responded with a veritable instant tsunami of complaints. Almost that long since the Reader’s Michael Miner chimed in, taking on all the complainers and defending McQueary. He upped the ante a bit, describing hoped-for storms of fire outside our kitchen windows and bodies piling up in the morgues.


But anyway, I digress.

Back to Kristen “Katrina” McQueary (as she was lovingly dubbed by wags on twitter).

Lots of folks were startled by her rhetoric and found it insensitive. It didn’t surprise me in the least because she’s been yapping on in a similar fashion for years, often in anonymous Tribune editorials. She has long hated public schools and teachers’ unions, long praised charter schools. She is a clumsy yet loud cheerleader for that cult-like ideology, corporate education reform control, and like most practitioners, she routinely ignores data and employs a rhetoric of fear to make her points, just as she did in the Katrina piece.

But in this piece, that wasn’t what most readers saw. Given all that rather alarming language that exalts tragedy and mines for possibility among sodden livelihoods bobbing in toxic water, it was hard to turn away from the disaster porn.

McQueary was rightly called out for her astonishingly cloddish essay, and even issued one of those I’m-so-sorry-you-misheard-me-that-way apologies.

But to simply stand, agape, at her insensitivity, while understandable, is to miss something important here.

Kristen McQueary is wrong about New Orleans schools.

She is wrong about the facts about New Orleans schools. The situation is complex and problematic–even supporters don’t gush about it as McQueary does. This glowing paragraph in her ecstatic paean to New Orleans is patent nonsense.

An underperforming public school system saw a complete makeover. A new schools chief, Paul Vallas, designed a school system with the flexibility of an entrepreneur. No restrictive mandates from the city or the state. No demands from teacher unions to abide. Instead, he created the nation’s first free-market education system.

The now 90%-chartered Recovery School District (RSD) has made impressive gains in test scores and graduation rates. However the list of downsides to what’s gone on in New Orleans is too long for one blog post, and I really don’t have time what with everything else that’s going on around here, but I’ll offer you a small sample of the, shall we say, complications.

10 years ago 7,000 teachers and staff, mainly black New Orleanians, were fired, causing a rift in the community that hasn’t yet healed.  They were replaced by a largely TFA, non-local, white majority teaching staff administered by white “experts” from out of town. What does it mean when a largely black community is “fixed” mostly by whites who are not from New Orleans? Why is the answer for urban black children always privatization? And who can measure the loss of community knowledge, history, stability, and tradition in New Orleans with the loss of those 7,000 folks?

The RSD charter schools seem purposely structured to separate children from their families, seem to have “diagnosed children and families as a liability,” imposing eight and a half hour days with transit of an hour or more. Those long transit times are what you get with “choice.” Here’s a report from New Orleans parent Ashana Bigard:

Parent activist Anthony Parker described what he called “washing machine” approach to education reform: “Wash, rinse, repeat. Wash, rinse, repeat.” He was talking about what happens to children. Children wait at bus stops as early as 4:30 in the morning and don’t get home until 7:30 or 8:00 at night. Then it’s time to do homework, go to sleep, get back up and repeat the cycle all over again. Children are badly sleep deprived.

The newly minted charters did not always accept all students who came to them, although they were supposed to.

….[C]harters in the first years after Katrina were known to hold invitation-only events to advertise their schools, interview parents and students and then selectively tell them they didn’t have seats, and find ways to push out and not replace lower-achieving, more-demanding students, many of them suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the city’s endemic violence and the dislocations wrought by the storm. Special-education students were particularly hard hit, prompting legal action by the Southern Poverty Law Center and rulings by Louisiana district and appellate courts that the New Orleans schools were violating students’ civil rights.

Many special education students switch schools four or five times trying to find one that has trained staff or simply being expelled over and over. “Children with disabilities are treated as liabilities,” says New Orleans parent and activist Karran Harper Royal.

And despite years of selectivity and charter “innovation,” she adds that “As of 2011, 79 percent of the RSD schools were rated D or F.”

As to the vaunted flexibility and nimbleness of charters, there is afoot in New Orleans something we’re very familiar with here. In her in-depth report on New Orleans schools, blogger EduShyster found that

If New Orleans is a free market of educational options, as its advocates like to claim, it is rapidly entering into its consolidation phase. Charters that have the most success raising test scores get to open new schools or take over existing ones. By next year, fewer than 10 of the charters in the Recovery School District will be stand-alone-schools. The rest belong to charter networks or national charter management organizations, including KIPP which operates ten of the RSD’s schools.

And finally, to return to my initial claim that the RSD has made significant gains. That may not even be anything but smoke and mirrors. Blogger and educator Mercedes Schneider points out that

the main reason RSD has made such great strides in grade level performance is that from 2012 to 2013 the state changed the formula and scale for measuring school performance, which artificially inflated RSD’s scores.

So we’re looking at juked stats, increasingly cumbersome corporate-model chain charters, charters that cannot handle special ed students, charters that have not accepted all comers despite the law, a school day that looks on its face very unhealthy for children, children crisscrossing the city in a way that severs neighborhood bonds, and the loss of local autonomy and power. And I’ve just scratched the surface, folks.

I hope Kristen McQueary clicks these links and realizes that even if you are an RSD booster, it’s complicated. There is no unadulterated glory in being “the nation’s first free market education system.” In fact, with the New Orleans RSD’s still-abandoned and wrecked old public schools, failing current schools, and increasing volume of angry parents, there may be no glory at all.

If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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