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Education Reform in New Orleans Fails the Biggest Test

06/23/2015 05:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

The goal of education reform is to empower locals to lead, says Andre Perry. And the massive reform effort in New Orleans has failed that test.

Jennifer Berkshire: You were involved in the education reform experiment in New Orleans from its inception. But you've become increasingly critical of the direction reform has taken. Why?

Andre Perry: The goal of education has to be build the capacity of local residents. It has to be--and I'm talking about from top to bottom. Our goal is not to improve a school in spite of the community. Our goal is to improve a community using schools. And it's not just to give students the skills to get a job--that's one small part. It's to make sure they have sustainable communities to live in. You're not going to fire your way to improving community. You have to do the hard work of building capacity and training people and becoming a member of the community. That's how you do it. That wasn't happening and it's not happening. In addition, and this is where I am clearly biased, New Orleans is 60% Black. If we don't have Black leaders in the mix, we're just reinforcing a power structure that helped cause the situation we were in.

Berkshire: Was there anything specific that caused you to start to question what was happening in New Orleans?

Perry: I became very critical because I saw a script that folks had to follow. There was a clear bias against New Orleanians, some of which was predicated on race, some on folks' affiliation with the prior system. But there was a clear bias. Around 2008 and 2009, I sat on some of the charter authorizing committees. I would see Black and local charter applications just passed on, and I would see white applications that had clearly been written by someone else, and yet the odds were stacked for their acceptance. I remember in the beginning, it was really about quality and making sure we found new voices. Then it became about *scaling up.* There was a big transition, and I said *whoa--that is not the move.* The goal is to bring in different voices and new, innovative perspectives. It's not to give the same people more schools. I didn't get into reform for that. I got in it to build the capacity of local residents.

The goal is to bring in different voices and new, innovative perspectives. It's not to give the same people more schools. I didn't get into reform for that. I got in it to build the capacity of local residents.

Berkshire: People should also know that you're very critical of the critics of education reform in New Orleans. I've heard you use words like *crass,* *silly,* and *camp-ish* to describe some of the anti-reform arguments. And can we acknowledge that merely typing those words makes my fingers hurt?

Perry: I'm very critical of the anti-reform narrative because it lacks any form of nuance. These labels--sometimes I don't even want to say them out loud--and if I hear the word neo-liberal again... There are no complicated scenarios posed; it's completely ideological. Let's be real. We have to be very pragmatic about change. There's no one way to bring about change. It typically comes from young people who aren't wedded to any particular brand, and it will come from a commitment to making sure that the lives and outcomes of those communities are improved by any means. That's what's frustrating to me on the anti-reform side. Black people have never had the luxury to do things one way. We need good schools across the board--public, charter, private--and delivery systems that really speak to our existence. This idea that we can't have multiple players in the same space is ridiculous. But when you're in these settings where the rhetoric is so intense, you completely miss that there is good work happening in the charter space, or good *reformed* work happening in the traditional space. And what you also don't see is how privilege and class are pervasive in all of these systems.

Black people have never had the luxury to do things one way. We need good schools across the board--public, charter, private--and delivery systems that really speak to our existence.

Berkshire: I've spent enough time in New Orleans now to see for myself how much more complicated the reform experiment looks when viewed up close. So I appreciate your call for nuance. But then I see the full-court press underway to *sell* the New Orleans model across the country, and all of my nuance goes out the window. It makes me mad.

Perry: It should. You don't ever want to oversell something because then you get in the business of selling a product and not really pushing for justice. The improvements--and I do think there are some improvements--are so marginal when you consider the investment. And if you're neglecting people in order to get academic gains, what do those gains really mean at the end of the day? There are too many nefarious ways to close gaps and show gains. If we're building reform on the backs of special needs students, that's not change. That's what we've always done.

There are too many nefarious ways to close gaps and show gains. If we're building reform on the backs of special needs students, that's not change. That's what we've always done.

And by the way, the improvements may not even necessarily be because of the reforms. There's no real research to show that a particular style of charter incites growth. I think what's happening is that there was a big concentrated effort to change. But there's no one thing that did it. There's no one issue or style that brought about change except for the parents and children themselves. But the way it's being spun is that it was the reforms that did it. So I think there was some cohesion around wanting to do this and I think that had tremendous benefits. But we could have had that cohesion in multiple ways. It's sad that we had to gel around a very paternalistic style of change. We could have gelled around a more democratic style and brought better improvements.

Berkshire: Let's role play for a second. You be a state legislator. I'm here to tell you about a miracle product that can overcome inequity, racism, poverty--you name it. All you have to do is change your school governance structure. Act now, and we'll throw in...

Perry: If we've learned anything, it's that solving problems isn't as simple as just changing the governance structure. I've seen multiple governance structures produce the same kinds of politics, the same kind of corruption. Systems technically aren't broken--people are broken. People can do evil things in multiple structures. What I will say is that in a decentralized system Love NOLAyou can minimize the impact of a thief because they may not have the entire system at their disposal. But to say that the New Orleans school board is bad and that we're not ready to go back, well I see the same kinds of shenanigans going on at the state level. So when people play these games with governance, it's really about ideology. There are a lot of people who just don't believe in unions, and that's what the breaking up narrative is largely about. I happen to think we talk way too much about governance when we should be talking about what's required to build a successful school or a successful system. A lot of the people who spend all of their time fighting over governance are self serving. When you hear them say *we can't have a school board,* it's because they're worried about losing control. That's what it's about.

Berkshire: One of the things I've noticed during my travels here is that much of the *fierce urgency* seems to have abated. Now you hear calls for patience from reform leaders. What would you like to see them have a fiercer sense of urgency about?

The reality is, you can't have quality without diversity. Even from a simplistic political perspective, you don't get buy-in if your schools aren't diverse. Folks ultimately despise you.

Perry: The muckety mucks of New Orleans had better acknowledge that racism in their own institutions exists. Conscious or unconscious--whatever you choose, I don't care--the result is that there is a lack of inclusion. When we talk about quality, for example, somehow diversity is never included in that conception of quality. It's OK to do all these other things in the name of quality but not hold yourself accountable for being a diverse institution. That's hypocrisy. If this is about finding like-minded people all the time, things will never change. If we're teaching our children anything, it's to show the example of us working with members of other communities. Our example is teaching the children the wrong lesson. The reality is, you can't have quality without diversity. Even from a simplistic political perspective, you don't get buy-in if your schools aren't diverse. Folks ultimately despise you. We have a dearth of Black teachers in the pipeline, and so we have to build capacity. That's the problem. We're not going to erase 40-50 years of educational neglect in a year, even if we really believe and close our eyes real tight. But we can train future teachers now, and commit to building the capacity of local folks at all levels, not just in the classroom.

Berkshire: You have a terrific new blog called Second Line about the *real voices from the education parade* in New Orleans. What does Second Line mean?

Perry: Second line parades are rooted in the jazz funeral tradition. They're parades in which African American social organizations lead and are followed by a *second line* of diverse revelers from all over the community. We named the blog Second Line because this is one of the few spaces where you can see Black leadership, and people appreciate it and roll with it, wherever it goes. I want to see that in education. In a city that's 60% Black, I want to see Black-led organizations, leaders and teachers. I also want to see whites follow that leadership. Earn your way. That still matters in a community. The blog is about lifting up voices, sometimes with a critical lens, but it's going to be more about celebrating Black success, Vietnamese success, Latino success, and efforts to bring reform, including by people who aren't considered reformers.

Berkshire: Final question. You've said that one of your goals with Second Line is to improve the quality of the debate around education reform in New Orleans. Other than banning the term *neo-liberal,* how would you like to see it change?

Perry: To me, the argument over pre vs. post Katrina is more about defending the past or defending reform. That to me seems very egocentric. The goal has always been *where do we go from here?* That means that we take account of what happened in the past and we use that knowledge to move forward. But when you're constantly saying *now is better than the past,* or *now is worse for the future,* it's just not a helpful argument if you're really sincere about making change. Also, there are no beliefs or words on these issues that should make us so bitter that we can't sit down and talk and find a solution. And yet we want people to be on a side and if you aren't, then there's hell to pay. But life isn't about somehow picking a camp and making an enemy. I can be critical of everybody, but were still going out for a drink later.

Berkshire: I think it might be time for a Sazarac.

Andre Perry lives, writes and consults in New Orleans. He formerly served as the CEO of the Capital One-UNO Charter Network in New Orleans and as the Dean of Urban Education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, MI.