Vol. 28, No.4
An Interview with community activist Karran Harper Royal
By next fall, New Orleans will have only five public schools—those operated by the Orleans Parish School Board. Everything else will be charters. The post-Katrina path to almost 100 percent charter education began with the post-storm shutdown of the city’s struggling public schools and the firing (recently declared illegal) of some 7,500 unionized teachers and other school employees, predominantly African American women. The assault was accelerated by a massive infusion of foundation and entrepreneurial investment in new charter schools, and years of state and federally supported deregulation and privatization.
Today the city has tens of thousands fewer children than before Katrina and significantly fewer African American residents, but the school-age population of 44,000 remains mostly poor and black. Parents and families must navigate a maze of selective charters, each operating as an independent district with little oversight. Special-needs students have particular problems finding appropriate placements. One 2010 study found 4,000 teens, about 10 percent of the city’s student population, not enrolled in school at all. New Orleans has also been a spawning ground for authoritarian “no excuses” pedagogy, inexperienced Teach For America corps members, and “zero tolerance” discipline policies.
Throughout this transformation, Karran Harper Royal has been a passionate voice for parents and an articulate witness, sounding the alarm to the rest of the nation about the on-the-ground realities behind the New Orleans “miracle.” Rethinking Schools editors Stan Karp and Jody Sokolower spoke with Harper Royal in several sessions over the past year.
Rethinking Schools: What was your experience as a parent in the New Orleans public schools before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005?
Karran Harper Royal: My start was 22 years ago, in 1992, when my son Khris was in kindergarten and he couldn’t sit still. I worked in the French Quarter, right at the corner of Royal and Toulouse. There was a little school down the street called McDonogh 15 Creative Arts Magnet School [now a KIPP school]. I wanted Khris to go to school near where I worked. So I just went down the street and asked, “Can I enroll my child here?” and they took him. He didn’t have to take a test or audition to get in, but it was a school of choice focused on the arts. It was such a special place, an amazing public school, very child-centered. The founder was Lucianne Carmichael. She’s retired now, but she has an artist retreat across the river called A Studio in the Woods.
RS: Khris was your oldest child?
KHR: My first child. And I was not who you see today. I was a very meek—if you can believe that—quiet mother who just wanted her son to be successful in school, because otherwise he was going to end up like my brother who at that time was in and out of jail. He was on drugs, he was a car thief—the best car thief in New Orleans, but a car thief. And, in my mind, there was a straight line from kindergarten to the prison cell. So I started visiting my son’s school. By the spring of his kindergarten year, I had quit my job and started going to school every day to find out why he was always in trouble. In trouble at that school was not the same as in trouble at a school today. In trouble meant he was asked to sit outside the classroom in the hallway or he was sent up to the librarian. Sometimes his teacher’s husband, a 70-year-old man, would take him for a walk in the French Quarter and they’d go get croissants.
RS: That was in-school suspension?
KHR: Yeah, that was “in trouble” back then. But I knew it was not good for him not to be in the classroom. Just my presence did not fix a thing, but I started volunteering. I ended up becoming a sub, I became the Title I parent. I was a fixture for six years. And we worked together—me, the principal, and the teachers—to make school work for Khris.
But I recognized that most parents can’t do what I did to make school work, and those are the kids who get in trouble. So, by the time Khris got to middle school, I was very interested in the plight of children who had behavior issues, because I already had an example in my brother of where that can lead. And I just fell in love with the kids. I started going to school board meetings. I probably have a better attendance record at school board meetings than most school board members.
RS: That was the parish school board?
KHR: The New Orleans Parish School Board. I got involved with everything. I served on every committee known to man at the school and in the district. I was a PTA officer. By the late 1990s, I began to immerse myself in the policy side.
RS: How would you describe the policy environment in New Orleans in the 1990s?
KHR: For children who learn differently, the policies didn’t work to their benefit. For example, every year the school board would vote for a waiver so they didn’t need to provide alternative schools. I said: “Wait a minute, the state law requires you to do this. You say you can’t, but what happens to these kids? They end up on the street.”
My first victory at a school board meeting was when the board went against the superintendent’s recommendation and decided not to vote for the waiver. That meant they had to create an alternative school and, of course, I volunteered to be on the committee. We created a wonderful alternative school.
So I have hands-on experience that it is possible to go from dysfunctional to functional. Hands-on experience of how a parent’s voice can truly be valued. That’s how I know what we have today is a bunch of BS.
RS: The “reformers” say it was universally recognized before Katrina that New Orleans schools were among the worst in the country. What was your perception?
KHR: You can’t paint everything with a broad brush. I’m no defender of the status quo; before Katrina we had problems, but there were also successes. Having an elected school board created ways for the public to participate. When Katrina hit, I was serving on the search committee for a new superintendent. For years I served on the disciplinary review committee. It was much different from the dictatorial charter school environment.
The charters purport to give parents and teachers greater power, right? But you have little real voice. In the charter school world they say, “We don’t even want a PTA in our school, but we’ll survey our parents about satisfaction.” Well, goddamn it, we’re not consumers!
RS: Customers seeking services instead of citizens demanding rights.
RS: Let’s talk about how we got from there to here. Schools basically shut down for months following Katrina. Then what happened?
KHR: By January 2006 a handful of schools were able to reopen. That was partly due to the U.S. Department of Education sending out money to start charter schools. Money wasn’t sent down to reopen traditional schools, but it was to start charter schools. So schools that had community support behind them quickly formed nonprofit organizations and created charter schools.
RS: That’s when the bureaucratic chaos started, right? You had New Orleans Parish public schools, you had New Orleans Parish charter schools, you had charters authorized by the Louisiana Department of Education, and you had charters authorized by the Recovery School District. What is the RSD?
KHR: The RSD is a statewide school district set up to “turn around” schools the state sees as failures. It was actually started in 2003, before Katrina. Most people don’t realize that. The first school placed into the RSD was Capdau Junior High. The University of New Orleans decided they wanted a charter school in the Gentilly area. Capdau was in Gentilly. When the law was written, it said that schools that had been persistently failing could be transferred into the RSD and then chartered. So Capdau was transferred and then chartered by the University of New Orleans.
Capdau is graded F today [by the Louisiana Department of Education]. We’re talking 10 years. The university did this. If the solutions were that simple, don’t you think the university would have had greater success after 10 years?
Actually, the University of New Orleans is one of the main fixtures of what’s happening here. Jim Meza, who was the dean of education, is a prime pusher of charter schools in the state. Now he is the superintendent of Jefferson Parish schools and is implementing charter schools there. If this is the track record, why are we scaling up?
RS: Before Katrina, did most New Orleans students go to neighborhood schools?
KHR: Yes, but neighborhood schools were eliminated after Katrina. Post-Katrina, you basically had to apply to go to a school. And you didn’t have any right or guarantee to the school closest to your home. Let’s say you were in an area of the city that didn’t flood, you still had no right to go to what was your neighborhood school before.
Of the 128 schools that the New Orleans Parish School Board was operating, 107 were transferred into the RSD, which got control of the buildings as well. So we pay taxes on these buildings, but they are controlled by the state.
RS: How has the teaching force changed?
KHR: There were mass firings of all school employees in January 2006: 4,500 teachers, 7,500 employees total. RSD started bringing in lots and lots of Teach For America and New Teacher Project teachers. Some charter schools were staffed 80 or 90 percent by these kinds of teachers.
They chose principals for the RSD schools I never would have chosen. That’s when I first thought, maybe they don’t really intend to fix these schools. Maybe it’s their goal to run them into the ground until they can justify chartering them. Because they had their pick of the best people from the school system. Why didn’t they choose the best? This was a cruel hoax perpetrated on the poorest children in this city, our most academically needy children.
[Superintendents] Paul Vallas and Paul Pastorek—they had the greatest opportunity, the greatest interest from ordinary citizens, additional dollars, no teachers’ union or school board to contend with. They had the opportunity to truly work magic. The only magic was making children disappear.
RS: We understand that 7,000 pre-Katrina teachers in New Orleans won an important victory this past January. An appeals court said they were wrongly terminated, they should have had the right to be first in line for rehiring as jobs opened up, and they were entitled to compensation.
KHR: Yes, I was live tweeting from that trial because the news media did not cover it. The state can appeal it, but even if the teachers don’t see a penny of the money, it is definitely a moral victory. They were fired illegally and they’ve been saying that all along.
RS: But it doesn’t get them their jobs back, right?
KHR: No, it doesn’t.
RS: So if the RSD was created to save failing schools, what’s the situation now?
KHR: As of 2011, 79 percent of the RSD schools were rated D or F. So mostly bad schools, right? From my experience, an elementary school needs to be a basic school with a well-rounded curriculum. You have elementary schools that are schools of the arts or science and math. Well, I want science and math and the arts in all the elementary schools! And it’s through having these things available in every elementary school that children are able to discover their affinities.
So I don’t buy the whole argument that not every school is a good fit. Every elementary school should fit every child who lives within walking distance. They should have everything that child needs at that elementary school. And I think that if we didn’t spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on transportation we might come close to providing these things in these elementary schools.
RS: How many schools are in the Parish School Board district today?
KHR: The schools that remain under the elected school board—that would be five schools.
RS: And all the others are charter schools? That’s unbelievable.
KHR: I know. It is unbelievable. And as charters, they will never come back under democratically elected control.
RS: That was a recent court case, too, wasn’t it? The Louisiana Supreme Court rejected the Orleans Parish School Board bid to reclaim 46 schools that are not failing from the RSD.
KHR: That’s right. I was surprised that the Parish School Board even filed that lawsuit. All you have to do is read the law to know that wasn’t a well-constructed argument. The original post-Katrina law that swept almost all of our schools into the Recovery School District had a five-year limit. But it was amended in 2010 so that each charter has the right to decide if they want to return to local control. So it was a waste of time and money to file the lawsuit in the way that they did. I think the attorneys were pressured into filing something; it was just a halfhearted attempt. There may be some other ways to litigate around schools coming back, but that wasn’t the best way as far as I’m concerned.
RS: How have these post-Katrina policies affected children with special needs?
KHR: My work is with parents of children with disabilities, advocating for their rights at school. The parents contact me, so I can’t say overall, but among the families I work with, many of the kids in grades K–8 have attended as many as five schools.
I often have to talk parents out of changing schools when they run into difficulties, because the problems are so widespread. Most of these new charter schools have very young, inexperienced staff; they simply don’t know what they’re doing, and the children pay the price in the lack of a quality educational program. They pay the price when they don’t fit into the model that the school founder has dreamed up.
Children with disabilities are treated as liabilities. These charter schools further segregate children based on ability level—more so than any traditional school district ever did.
RS: Can you give an example?
KHR: Sure. I’m dealing with a case right now at a charter school. The child has ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] and oppositional defiant disorder. He’s 8 years old. And the school has very, very strict behavior rules. In no way can this child follow the rules as they are.
Last month they refused to let him go on a field trip because of what they thought he might do wrong. He came home and asked his mom, “Why didn’t I get a permission slip for the field trip?”
The next day we happened to have a meeting at the school and the disciplinarian told us: “Well, what if he runs off and hides under a table at the capitol? He hasn’t behaved so far, so we can’t take him on this field trip.” That’s totally discriminatory. It’s a violation of IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act]. If you have a child who has an IEP [Individualized Education Program] for behavior, you are legally required to make appropriate accommodations and modifications. What they did was also a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act.
RS: Is that typical?
KHR: It’s not just field trips, it’s how behavior policies inherently discriminate against children with disabilities because charter schools get to set up their own rules on school culture. These schools are often set up by people who spent three years or less in the classroom, who don’t have degrees in education, who don’t have any background in child development. These are people who might have a degree in business. They’re treating schools as a business and they’re treating children as widgets.
They expect children to do things that may not be developmentally in line for that age group or may not be reasonable for a specific child. And anybody who doesn’t fit into those rules, well, you as a parent have the choice to pick another school.
RS: I understand that New Orleans lost about a third of its school-age population after the storm.
KHR: Yes, we have only about 44,000 students now. After Katrina, the four biggest housing projects were shut down. Those were thousands and thousands of children who were simply not allowed to come back. Not a lot of damage to the buildings, but they were shut down. All of the people you saw at the convention center and the Superdome, those were the people who couldn’t come back here. It wasn’t because they didn’t want to, but because they depended on public housing and no provisions were made for them to come back.
Just like with the schools, there was already a plan to transform public housing that began before Katrina. The new housing right by me, it used to be the St. Bernard housing project, it’s now called Columbia Park. They built fewer units and only a third of the units are truly public housing. The city was shrunk by design, and so was the school system. They wanted to make sure that not too many of the poor people could come back.
RS: New Orleans has a voucher program, too. When did that start?
KHR: In 2008. About 2,500 kids were getting vouchers to go to private schools. It was a pilot. When you look at the test scores from the first and second years of that pilot program, those children were scoring worse than students at the RSD direct-run schools—overall our least successful schools. So our pilot failed. What does Louisiana do? It scales up the program. Now it’s statewide.
RS: Is that typical of the relationship between what is happening in New Orleans and what’s happening in the rest of the state?
KHR: They were able to scale up the reform in New Orleans faster by taking advantage of the tragedy. But it’s happening all over the state. You know ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council—a powerful group of right-wing lobbyists and legislators]? We’re operating the ALEC education agenda lock, stock, and barrel. Now it’s happening everywhere. I tell people that if you believe what has happened in New Orleans is OK—stripping away our right to be self-determined in public education by taking our schools away—are you ready to say that America should not operate on democratic principles? Because that’s where this leads.
RS: How has this experience affected the relationship between teachers and parents?
KHR: I’m very close to the United Teachers of New Orleans, and I’ve always been close to individual teachers, too. We are the closest ones to our children and we want the same things. We faced some heated battles with the union when I served on the disciplinary review committee because we had different goals. They wanted to make sure their teachers were not abused by those bad children, and I wanted to make sure there was justice in dealing with those bad children. Sometimes these were tough negotiations, but that’s how democracy works. The union recognizes that the reforms are really attacks on education. But at this point, the union doesn’t have any power within the school districts.
I’m part of a coalition that meets over at the union office: the Coalition for Community Schools-NOLA. We started as a support to alumni, parents, teachers, and community members who wanted schools remaining as community schools. We participated in protests and many, many meetings with the school district about ways to keep schools as community schools rather than becoming charter schools. We’re currently involved in the Journey for Justice Listening Project.
RS: What is the Listening Project?
KHR: Journey for Justice is a national alliance of about 30 organizations in 18 cities that have been fighting school closures throughout the country. The Listening Project has been holding meetings where we ask people in the communities how they have been personally affected by school closures, turnarounds, phase-outs and co-locations. Our plan is to take a compilation of these stories to the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C. Later on, we hope to bring this before a committee of the United Nations.
We’re looking at the disparate impact of these education policies on communities of color—the disinvestment that has occurred in these communities when schools close, and the negative impact on children with disabilities when they have to switch schools or travel miles and miles, waking up early in the morning to go to a school across town because their neighborhood school has closed.
We’ve put together a document called the “Sustainable School Success Model,” which outlines a more sustainable way to transform schools and communities. Under the Race to the Top grants, schools have to use one of four models, mostly based on closing schools or firing staff. We want the U.S. Department of Education to look at our Sustainable School Success Model as a fifth option so that school districts don’t have to slash and burn.
RS: When you talk about going to the United Nations, are you saying it’s an international issue of human rights?
KHR: Yes, we believe these are human rights violations.
RS: So what’s next?
KHR: At this point, I feel that I best fit in continuing to help parents on a one-on-one basis with filing complaints and mentoring them through standing up to unfair policies at their schools. That’s the work I love doing.
The other thing I want to do is tell the story of what is going on as a warning to the rest of the world—tell the truth about how it works for our most vulnerable children. As I’m invited to speak in various places all over the world, I use that opportunity to elevate parents’ stories and experiences, so that folks will understand what has happened in a city that has almost 100 percent of what the corporate school privatizers say they want. Somebody has to speak from the voice of the ground level on this.
I hope that through hearing the horror stories coming out of New Orleans, other cities will think twice before following the New Orleans model. I don’t have solutions on how to turn around what has happened in New Orleans, especially when the law is not on our side. We don’t have thousands of people in the street protesting this and able to move legislators. We’re just not there in terms of the community organizing. So I have to do what I feel will have a meaningful impact.
RS: The reform crew claims to be operating on behalf of disenfranchised communities. That’s been a powerful argument. Given your experience in New Orleans, how do you see that?
KHR: If you come in and impose what you think is a solution on me but you don’t have the history and the background to actually craft a real solution, then you may be doing harm. If you don’t have the respect to engage the people you’re trying to help before you come up with a solution, that’s colonialism, that’s not reform.
This is not a respectful endeavor. You can’t “do” reform to people, you have to do it with people. I always believe that solutions lie within the people who are being harmed.
I go back to my own experience as a poor black girl in New Orleans who grew up in public housing, whose daddy didn’t finish high school, who has a brother who’s a dropout. My mother was pregnant when she graduated from high school, my little sister was pregnant when she was in high school. I lived this. Don’t you think my lived experiences count toward solutions? I know they do because I have actually come up with solutions—based on those lived experiences—to make things better for people who grew up like me. So if you have a totally different public or private school experience, what makes you think you have solutions within you that will be applicable to people who have a different reality? That doesn’t even make sense to me.
RS: In the past few years, there has been a growing sense of resistance—in Chicago, Philly, Seattle—and a change in the terms of discussion.
KHR: The national conversation has come a long way. We have changed how corporate media reports this stuff. They weren’t saying anything before. When Journey for Justice brought youth and education activists from all over the country to testify about school closings and fight for a sustainable model of school reform, we had stacks of media coverage, everything from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times to the Washington Post. The coverage of what’s called school reform used to be all positive. We have changed the conversation. You’ve got to recognize success and victories. But we haven’t won the war.
I’m 50 years old now. My second and last child is about to graduate from high school, and these last 22 years as a public school parent have taught me a lot. It’s been an education for me, and that wisdom has been earned through the school of hard knocks. Maybe I’m a revolutionary, I don’t know. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” So until the people being oppressed start demanding things, power will concede nothing.