While many in New Orleans have waited two years for recovery, the restructuring of its schools seemed to happen overnight. Not long after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans two years ago, the Louisiana Legislature cleared the way for the state to assume control of 107 out of 128 schools in the Orleans district. The state began immediately converting its newly acquired schools to charter schools. We speak with Nat LaCour of the American Federation of Teachers. [includes rush transcript]
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AMY GOODMAN: We’re here in the Lower Ninth Ward, just outside the Industrial Canal levee that was breached two years ago. The hurricane hit 2005, August 29, and what happened, the devastation, people talk about a natural disaster and an unnatural disaster.
While many in New Orleans have waited two years for recovery, the restructuring of its schools seems to happen overnight. Not long after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, the Louisiana Legislature cleared the way for the state to assume control of 107 out of 128 schools in the Orleans District. Immediately, the state began converting many of its newly acquired schools to charter schools: publicly funded schools run by for-profit or nonprofit groups that operate by a "charter," or contract. One result is that the number of unionized teachers dropped from about 4,700 to 500.
Nat LaCour is the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. He’s the former president of the United Teachers of New Orleans. He joins us now here in New Orleans, came for the anniversary observances yesterday, is flying back to Washington today. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Nat LaCour.
NAT LaCOUR: Thank you for inviting me.
AMY GOODMAN: How is it for you to be here in the Lower Ninth Ward?
NAT LaCOUR: It’s really depressing. Obviously, we are dissatisfied with the rate of progress in rebuilding the city. And, of course, the Lower Ninth Ward was the hardest hit.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the situation with the teachers. I don’t think most people in this country understand the hurricane that swept through the schools after the natural hurricane.
NAT LaCOUR: Well, that is correct. It’s not Katrina that did the damage. It’s many of the elected officials in this state and in this local community, that on the heels of the storm they terminated almost all of the school employees — and so, it wasn’t just teachers —- teachers, paraprofessionals, cooks, bus drivers, principals. They fired 7,500 people. Now, the tragedy of -—
AMY GOODMAN: They fired everyone?
NAT LaCOUR: Yes. The tragedy of that is that many of these individuals had been impacted by the storm, lost their property, only to discover that there were people who were conspiring to take their jobs. And when you took their job, you also took their insurance. Even for the people who were retired and was participating in the local healthcare plan, the premiums went up so much — they tripled — that many people had to drop their insurance, even if they were staying here. So you had a really bad situation, not well thought out, but people attempting to seize the opportunity to create charter schools and to take control of the school system.
Now, that was bad for the adults, but the second tragedy here is when you have young people, school-aged children, particularly elementary students, who experience a tragedy in their life — certainly Katrina was one — what all of the professionals will say to you is that the first thing that you need to do is to get those children back in a normal setting as much as possible. That would mean returning these kids, opening the schools, so that they could be with their schoolmates and the teachers and the staff that they have come to know.
Instead, the schools were closed, for the people who wanted to come back or for the people that were here, in order to accommodate this experiment with — I would call it control. Many of the schools that opened as charter schools have selected admission policies, which means they get to determine which students will attend and which students will not. And so, what you have here, if the population is not careful, you set up an elitist-type school system, and we need to avoid that.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, yesterday at the tribunal, there were these T-shirts that said, "Don’t believe the hype: The recovery is not 'slow.' This is an experiment in privatization of an entire city."
NAT LaCOUR: Yes. I agree with that, but I think it’s a serious mistake. The things that they have done under the guise of attempting to improve the schools, they could have done that working with the traditional public schools, but they chose not to.
AMY GOODMAN: So you have the "recovery schools," named so even before Hurricane Katrina. These are the big public schools. One of the schools, the John McDonough School, something like thirty-five security, twenty-three teachers, eighty-six kids expelled, eighty-four kids graduate, I think that was the statistics in The Nation piece on this. One of the students saying, "When I come to school, I feel like I’m going to visit someone in prison."
NAT LaCOUR: Well, I only know what I’ve read and heard. Obviously, I talk to the teachers in the union here, and so I know a little bit about John Mac, but nothing firsthand.
Let me simply say this: I don’t think there’s anybody in New Orleans who would say that they were satisfied with the school system prior to Katrina, because there’s an effort to say that there are people here who want to the status quo. That is not true. What we want are efforts on the part of school officials and elected officials to improve the schools. And we maintain that a lot of the attention and the focus that has been given should have been given to reopening the schools. You had a reduced student population, so you could have kept your teachers, reduced class size, which is one of the major factors in getting students to do better. But they chose not to do that. And we just think that it’s a real danger.
Now, things may work out. Our union is still around. When you said 500, we didn’t have 500, because everybody lost their job. And as of yesterday we had 1,200 members, because people understand that there’s a need to join and a manner in which they can collectively impact decision making. And that is what is needed. We’ve had a union in this city since 1937. We were one of the first communities in the Deep South to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. It is not the union contract of the teachers that were the problem; it’s a lack of resources. And that continues to be the situation. And it doesn’t matter whether the schools are run by the state or the local school board, if you don’t put in sufficient resources, if you don’t give the teachers the wherewithal that they need to provide quality education, then you are not going to do a good job of reaching all of your students, but particularly your disadvantaged students. And so, we’re interested in all students, not some students.
When they opened the schools here in midsummer, the schools — charter schools — they took their best schools and made them charter schools. And so, obviously these schools opened. There were places for the kids who were doing well to get back to a rather normal setting. The other parents and kids have had to fish, go around and find places. Kids have been turned down I’m sure that they will do a better job, but all of the so-called problems that we are experiencing now was not necessary. Our union is committed to work with school officials and the elected people to rebuild this school system to make it better. It can be done, but we have to work together as a team, not one group of people attempting to just force upon the community what they think is right or the best way.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. We’ve been speaking with Nat LaCour. He is the secretary-treasurer of American Federation of Teachers. He is former president of Union of Teachers here in New Orleans.