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Professor sees inequity, little
change, in post-Katrina school reform
Chamberlain, Education Editor
photo to enlarge
Mirón, an education professor at Illinois,
and a New Orleans native, sees inequity and little
change, in post-Katrina school reform.
Ill. — Can a devastating flood set the stage for the transformation
of a school system?
Many saw an opportunity to find out in New Orleans in the wake of hurricane
Katrina last August. The state took over most of the city’s schools
and began an effort to reopen as many as possible as charter schools.
The result is “one of the most massive experiments in urban education
ever conducted,” according to Luis Mirón, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a New
Orleans native, who has advised and studied New Orleans schools for
Mirón has documented and studied the progress of that “experiment”
during the year since Katrina, with help from graduate students Robert
Ward and Maria Lovett, and so far is not encouraged by the results.
He has seen troubling inequities in the way schools have been reopened,
evidence of serious underfunding of the charter schools that have been
opened, and few real improvements in the curriculum or in classroom
With a new school year beginning, the state-run Recovery School District,
serving most of the city’s low-income and at-risk students, finds
itself scrambling to find the teachers it needs – many likely
to be underqualified – for thousands of expected students.
Central to some of these problems is that the state never took the time
or did the outreach to get “buy-in” from the community or
teachers for the charter-school concept, Mirón said. That buy-in
is “ultimately what makes any of these reform models go,”
he said. “Charter schools won’t work without that level
of community involvement.”
They also never took the time or did the hard work to plan a new curriculum
that would raise the level of instruction, Mirón said.
“One of the lessons from this is don’t wait for a hurricane”
to start implementing school reforms, Mirón said. “Take
the time to do it and fund it adequately … invest early on into
innovation and reform, rather than wait for a crisis or catastrophe.”
The argument could be made, Mirón said, that the state had to
move fast just to get schools reopened, and didn’t have the luxury
of time for involving the community or planning real change.
“But that argument doesn’t hold much weight, because the
state was very slow to open up schools,” even when resources were
clearly available to do so, he said. On the other hand, “the state
was very fast to license and approve charters.”
A group of schools on the West Bank section of New Orleans, serving
mostly middle-class students and a large proportion of “gifted
and talented” students, was quickly turned into charter schools
and, with federal help, reopened by January, Mirón said. During
the same time, several thousand low-income and special-needs students
were unable to attend school at all because of lack of access or transportation,
“The reason they moved so fast is because they wanted to get the
charter-school model – this flexible, privately governed model
– away from the public school board, a majority-black, elected
school board, and put it in the hands of independent private organizations,”
Mirón said he agreed with the general consensus before Katrina
that the New Orleans schools were failing and in need of serious reform.
For at least two decades, “the school system had resisted every
single reform that came out the door,” he said, and the city,
with its fragmented politics, “could never get behind a single
vision for its schools.”
Mirón began following developments in New Orleans schools as
a staffer with the Bureau of Government Research in New Orleans during
the mid- to late-1980s, when he developed educational policy proposals
for the school system. He then became a professor in the Urban Education
Lab at the University of New Orleans, where he also worked on reform
efforts with schools in the system. He has continued to study developments
in the system as he moved to new academic posts in California and Illinois.
“I’m still optimistic that New Orleans will be better off
post-Katrina with the charter model than they were pre-Katrina, but
time is a valuable resource,” Mirón said. The city and
the state may have lost anywhere from one to five years in its attempts
so far to transform the schools, he said, “but I do believe that
it’s still salvageable.”
One lesson from New Orleans, Mirón said, is to avoid a state
takeover in any similar effort at reform. “They clearly had alternatives,”
he said. “The state takeover model is really the model of last
resort. … Change should come from within, in participation with
When the state took over, it thought it would get hundreds of applications
to run charters, but it didn’t, Mirón said. The review
process then took much longer than expected, and only a handful of charter
schools were established. The state-run Recovery School District is
now “in an absolute mess,” and rushing to open 50-plus schools
for the fall, he said.
“The whole irony of this is that what the elite business community
in New Orleans wanted – which was to get control of the schools
out of the hands of a central bureaucracy – is exactly what they
seem to have unintentionally created in the Recovery School District,”
Likewise, the state sought to establish charter schools in order to
avoid running the schools itself, “but guess what – that’s
exactly what they’re doing now,” Mirón said.