Immediately after Hurricane Katrina hit, the Louisiana state legislature voted to take over most of New Orleans’ public schools and effectively fire the 7,500 teachers and employees who work in them. The city schools are now part of the state-run recovery school district and control of many of schools is being given to private charter organizations. We speak with a member of the United Teachers of New Orleans. [includes rush transcript]
We go now to New Orleans to look at the ongoing efforts to rebuild the city in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. After the storm hit, the city’s infrastructure was virtually wiped out. Public housing units, hospitals, schools and universities were closed down because of physical damage. But many of these public institutions have not been re-opened. And some contend that this is part of an effort to privatize New Orleans.
We first look at the New Orleans public school system. Immediately after Hurricane Katrina hit, the Louisiana state legislature voted to take over most of the city’s public schools and effectively fire the 7,500 teachers and employees who work in them. The city schools are now part of the state-run recovery school district and control of many of schools is being given to private charter organizations. Just last week, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced $24 million dollars in federal aid to Louisiana for development of private charter schools which doubles the amount the state has already received. This federal grant was made only to charter schools–not traditional public schools. Many parents and teachers have expressed concern the move towards private charter schools is being done with little public discussion about curriculum, the efficacy of the schools, and working conditions for teachers.
- Joe DeRose, Communications Director for the United Teachers of New Orleans.
We invited a member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary & Secondary Education to join us but they declined our request.
AMY GOODMAN: Joe DeRose is on the line with us now from New Orleans, joins us in the studios of WLAE. He’s the Communications Director for the United Teachers of New Orleans. We invited a member of Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to join us, but they declined our request. Joe DeRose, can you start off by telling us about the firing of the teachers? I don’t think most people in this country understand they were all fired.
JOE DeROSE: Exactly. And first of all, I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity to tell this very sad story. You’re right. Every teacher in New Orleans was fired. There weren’t 7,500. There was 7,500 school employees, everybody from cafeteria workers, truck drivers and custodians to teachers, and there were about 4,000 teachers. Solid middle class employees, career professionals who had dedicated their careers to helping try to educate the children in one of the neediest cities in the country, a city with one of the highest poverty rates, as everybody saw in the days immediately following Katrina.
They were treated with utter disrespect. There was no notification that they would be fired until one day in October, when the school board called a press conference, notified us about an hour before that they were going to have such a conference. Therefore, most people found out that they were being terminated on the 5:00 news. Those who didn’t have TVs or weren’t still living in the city found out in the newspaper the next morning or by phone calls from friends and relatives who were in touch with the media.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happened through this year? And what percentage of the public schools? Are we talking over 90% of the schools are African American?
JOE DeROSE: Yes, it’s probably closer to 95%. And we also have a class division within the city, where many African Americans of means, middle class African Americans, were able to send their children to or chose to send their children to Catholic schools. So New Orleans public schools were left with really the most most impoverished students, and they were also in the buildings with terrible conditions, a school system that was not really adequately supported. There was not enough money. Nobody has ever determined how much money is needed to properly educate children in the state of Louisiana, for one, and certainly not in the city of New Orleans.
If people had seen before Katrina the conditions of these schools, they would have been appalled. In fact, there was a group of people from the great city schools who came in in October to evaluate the damage caused by Katrina, and because these people were experienced and because they were visiting schools mostly on the un-flooded West Bank of New Orleans, they could tell the difference between hurricane damage and previously existing damage. And they were astonished at the conditions that the city provided for its public school students.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Joe DeRose, spokesperson for the United Teachers of New Orleans. So what happens now, and how many public schools have been opened, and what does the Spellings announcement mean for this tens of millions of dollars going into charter schools?
JOE DeROSE: Well, as far as the number of schools that are opened, before Katrina there were about 116 schools that were run by the Orleans Parish School Board. Now there are four. There are about 25 schools that have been designated — given charter status by the Orleans Parish School Board and another 88 or 90 or so that have been taken over by the state and will be run under what’s called the Recovery School District, under the direct authority of the state.
There was a long delay in opening any schools, and there is a strong feeling which we think is valid, that there was a concerted effort to not reopen the schools. The very first announcement given by the State Superintendent of Education at the first meeting of the state board after the hurricane, he announced the schools in New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish would not open for the rest of the year. The president of United Teachers of New Orleans made an impassioned plea to re-evaluate that decision, that there were people who were living in the city, whose houses were not damaged that deserved an education, and that there were people who would want to come back to the city that needed some hope that there would be schools open.
So the first school open after we filed a suit. It opened in, I think, the first or second week of November. I think it was the second week of November. One school opened in December, and then a third school opened in January. We continued to push our suit, saying that enough schools were not open in the city to provide an education for all the children who were still living here. And with the protests from officials that, yes, there were seats for every child that wanted to go to school. Well, that was not true. And the proof of that came as late as April, when they opened three more schools under pressure of our suit, and those schools filled up immediately.
Another problem with the delay in the schools, which really not only hurt teachers, but hurt children, the students of the city, and the families who wanted to return is that the schools that were opened were pretty much confined to two geographical areas of the city: the Uptown area and the West Bank. But there were many children who were living on the other side of the French Quarter in the neighborhoods on the other side of the French Quarter, and that’s a distance of, you know, anywhere from five to maybe twelve miles to go to those schools. No transportation was provided for the students. And parents, even if there was transportation, parents are going to be reluctant to send, especially their elementary school children, to a strange neighborhood ten or twelve miles away.
Now, going to Spellings’s announcement that more money is going to be provided for charter schools, this reinforces the belief that charter schools were a primary objective of post-Katrina New Orleans in the eyes of many officials. We’ve got to ask where was the federal help in the pre-existing school system in the schools like I described, school buildings like I described?
AMY GOODMAN: Joe DeRose, on a side note, I remember when the President’s mother, the former First Lady, Barbara Bush, went to visit the Katrina survivors in the Houston Astrodome, and she promised to make a contribution to charity. I’m looking at the Houston Chronicle, the piece that wrote about that and said, "Katrina funds earmarked to pay for Neil Bush’s software program. Former First Lady Barbara Bush donated an undisclosed amount of money to the Bush-Clinton Katrina fund with specific instructions that the money be spent with an educational software company owned by her son Neil. Since then, the Ignite learning program has been given to eight area schools that took in substantial numbers of Hurricane Katrina evacuees." That was in Houston. Do you know more about that? At the time, we didn’t know that she was saying that her charitable contribution would go to pay for her son’s educational software.
JOE DeROSE: No, I don’t know anything about that. But I think the point is that that really needs to be looked at very hard, is that a lot of money has been allocated, maybe not enough, but certainly billons of dollars have already been allocated by the federal government, and I think it’s pretty important to look at where that money is being spent. And I think that maybe in other parts of this discussion with Mr. Quigley later on that you might want to talk about that even more.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you what’s happened to these teachers, the 4,000 teachers that were fired and the other school workers, 7,500 employees. For example, health benefits. Are they covered?
JOE DeROSE: This is the thing that has been — well, I don’t want to say most traumatic, because losing a job after dedicating a career to a school system or to a city was very traumatic in itself, but has been very significant. When the board decided to fire all these teachers, it changed the risk pool of people that were in the insurance pool. So now, instead of having thousands of active employees, many of which were younger, and you had a broader spectrum across the age range, you’re left with mostly retirees in the insurance pool, people who had previously retired before Katrina, and then you also had an influx of new retirees, because the only way that people who are in the school system can maintain insurance benefits after leaving the school district is if they retire. They cannot — they would not be allowed to retain benefits if they were terminated.
So, many teachers were caught between a rock and a hard place when the termination notice went out, that they had to choose between retiring, even if they weren’t ready and still loved teaching and wanted to go back to their schools, or to retire just so they can maintain benefits. So we had the influx of probably a thousand or 1,500 employees, maybe more, into the insurance pool on top of all the retirees who had retired in years and decades past.
The skewing of the insurance pool meant that the rates had to be recalculated, and rates for a retiree, for a single retiree, went from $200 a month to over $600 a month. Now, if you were a teacher and maybe you were making maybe a retirement of $20,000 if you’re newly retired, maybe less than that, and $7,000 of that is going to go to insurance, that’s pretty unaffordable. But it’s even worse if you were a teacher’s aide or a secretary or a cafeteria worker. Some of those people would not even bring home in retirement, in a pension, what they would have to pay in insurance cost.
AMY GOODMAN: Joe, you lost everything in the hurricane?
JOE DeROSE: Yes. Like many other people, you know, I lost everything. We’re trying to rebuild. I’m still living in Baton Rouge, as so many people are. I’m lucky enough to be living in Baton Rouge, which is only a little more than an hour away. There are people who — people I know. There are teachers who live in many other states, a lot in Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Florida, who are dying to get back, but it’s difficult, especially if they went and actually did — were able to get another job, which was difficult, because the school year had already begun in the South. Some of those people, you know, probably just getting back with the end of the school year to try to rebuild their house.
AMY GOODMAN: Joe DeRose, I want to thank you for being with us, spokesperson for United Teachers of New Orleans.