Dirty South Bureau

August 31, 2008


Thanks to everyone who has checked on my safety and sent both kind words and a factual correction.

So the weekend trip I had planned to New York is looking like it will be my Hurrication, and potentially indefinite. To say that things do not look good seems like too massive of an understatement. Since we’ve been living in disaster for the last three years, the idea of a storm worse than Katrina kind of boggles the mind.

But there it is, less than 24 hours away. The good news is that nearly everyone I have been able to contact has evacuated, and is relatively safe.

I’m not sure how to feel about the 311 system the city put in place to deal with evacuating folks who don’t have cars. It worked for a friend of mine who is now in Birmingham, but it took him six hours to get through. But for that it worked at all I have to give the city credit. Other friends were not able to get through and found another way. There is still the question of how many people, if any, have been left behind.

So far I have heard from two people who are planning on riding this storm out. I personally do not think this is a good idea (and have said so), but since I can’t stop them, I will be reposting their accounts of what goes on in New Orleans.

I am personally hoping and praying that the Corps of Engineers is downplaying the repairs that have been made to the levees in the East Bank of Orleans Parish, and that they will hold. However there is a new concern; that the West Bank levees may not.

This puts a large number of people on the West Bank of the Mississippi (Algiers, Gretna and other municipalities and areas in Jefferson Parish) at great risk.

Southern Louisiana, including Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes, are also in deep shit. I don’t know about their levee systems, but there is serious danger simply from the winds if Gustav continues at its current magnitude. New Orleans was actually spared the worst of Katrina’s winds; closer to the eye of the storm and particularly on the eastern side the damage, both from winds and a tsunami, was more intense. These places often didn’t receive the magnitude of damage or the press that New Orleans did largely because they were less populous.

Southern Louisiana may take decades to recover from this, if ever. Many in these areas were already struggling economically from the collapsed price of shrimp. The last time I was in Buras, about ten months ago, it looked like Katrina had just hit, but larger towns like Houma were doing better.

August 30, 2008


Filed under: environment,New Orleans Politics,The Feds,We Are Not OK — christian @ 9:36 am

Iím at the airport as I write this, looking at a line of maybe one hundred persons to get to the gate. Ordinarily this would be strange, however over the last twenty-four hours there have been several such lines. I left at 6AM to beat traffic, (hours before my flight time), and my not-so-secret route out of town, AKA the wormhole, was nearly empty. However as I approached the airport, things were very different; parking in particular was difficult to come by.

I recall watching Nash Roberts on Fox 8 news last night with a sinking feeling in my stomach. For those who donít know, Nash is the semi-mythical meteorologist they bring out of retirement when the shit hits the fan, hurricane-wise. An ex-girlfriend admitted to me once that just seeing Nash on TV scared her. Roberts seemed to think we are likely to be OK; he predicts that the storm will head westward. I hope heís right.

With Gustav headed towards the Gulf on the south side of Cuba as a Category 1 Hurricane as of this morning, someone, somewhere, is going to have hell to pay. Iím not sure it will be us, but no-one I know is taking any chances.

The level of general panic yesterday was high. I went to the bank in the afternoon and the ATM was out of money; inside was a line of perhaps fifty people. I recall seeing music critic and Jazz-Industrial complex darling Alison Fensterstock in that line. The look on her face was not good, (or was that her everyday scowl?). Others I spoke to reported the same thing at pharmacy counters, and other businesses; generally ATMs are out of cash. I had business at a notary public, and the experience was identical; there had been a rush on auto titles. In the grocery store, it was all canned food and bottled water in the checkout lines.

Some of you reading this may say that this is all silly and out-of-proportion. Well, fuck you.

Hereís why: the Army Corps(e) of Engineers refuses to guarantee our levees, saying at best that they have been returned to ďpre-Katrina levelsĒ. Are you kidding me?

At the end of the day, the only thing that I can say is that we should not have to live like this. It is an uncertain universe. Natural disasters happen. But in the richest country in the world, the failure to protect the citizens of a major city is totally pathetic. This would never happen in Connecticut.

And donít give me that ďthey shouldnít have built a city thereĒ or ďNew Orleans is below sea levelĒ bullshit. First off, have you heard of Port of New Orleans? Second, half the city is at or above sea level. Third, there are plenty of cities in America that are protected by levees, and plenty of large cities around the world at or below sea level. Iowa floods, anyone?

I blog about a lot of other things; education, public housing, race and class, etc. But this is the biggest issue here – that the government has totally failed to protect us. And I for one am convinced that it has everything to do with race, class and regional bias. There is no reason why New Orleans cannot have adequate storm protection starting with levees that would protect us from a category five storm except a lack of political will.

We cannot survive as a city evacuating like this every time a hurricane comes to the gulf. I donít know what it is going to take, but in order to survive, we need a political re-alignment that will get us the basic infrastructure that we need.


August 25, 2008

More Thoughts on Education, Tough, Charters and Teachers

Filed under: Media,New Orleans Schools — christian @ 6:00 am

Judging from the comments that I have received both in person and online, I feel the need to clarify and go deeper into some of the issues that I have discussed both on this blog and on the Rising Tide III Education Panel, and to dispel some misunderstandings.

First off, I am not against new (and young) teachers coming to New Orleans. Some of the people who I count as personal friends, such as Jeffrey Berman, who I sat next to on the Rising Tide Educational Panel, are new teachers. These people are taking on a noble and extremely difficult task. They deserve a level of support that they are not getting either from the RSD or from many charter organizations. Over and over again, in my conversations with new teachers, they are the first to tell me that they need effective professional development and mentoring, which they are absolutely not getting in the RSD or in some of the charters.

I do think that bringing in large numbers of inexperienced teachers as the cure-all for the systemís ills is just plain wrong. First off, it goes contrary to test score data, which problematic as it is, is among the most relevant “objective” data available. But more, the logic behind this solution of bringing in mostly white, ivy-league educated teachers to replace a mostly black, native New Orleanian teacher force appears to be driven by latent cultural imperialism. As a veteran New Orleans teacher once told me, he saw it as “the great Bawana coming in to save the ignorant country teachers”.

There were bad teachers before the storm. There are bad employees in every field. However, blaming the pre-storm teachers for the state of the schools in New Orleans is one of the critical mistakes that is guiding the so-called “reform” going on in New Orleans schools.

In one small example, I recall about a year ago receiving a press clipping from an Alabama paper congratulating a transplanted New Orleans teacher on winning teacher of the year. This man, who was both a teacher of multiple subjects and a football coach, had not missed a day of work in over thirty years. He is among those who was fired after the storm when he was displaced, and now weíve lost him. Way to go, Cecil Picard, Leslie Jacobs, Ann Duplessis et al.

In many cases, what I heard from teachers who taught elsewhere after the storm is remarkably similar to what I heard from students who went to school elsewhere- that they were amazed at the resources and environment offered to them to work in, and that they inevitably had reservations about returning to the awful conditions back in New Orleans.

This is what was most missing from Paul Toughís New York Times Magazine article. He quoted plenty of academic bureaucrats, think-tankers and other “experts”, but very few teachers. I do not recall reading the comments of a single veteran teacher in his article, and this is likely why he seemed to have little idea what actually goes on in New Orleans schools. To dismiss their years of experience and scapegoat them for a failed system is simply inexcusable, and Paul Toughís work deserves to be condemned for the omission of their voices more than anything.

Second, I am not categorically against charter schools. This may surprise some of you, and I have been attacked both from the left and the right on this issue. We absolutely needed educational reform in New Orleans pre-storm. Some teachers I have talked to prefer working in charter schools and say that in their charter administration is more accessible and they feel free to innovate in ways they could not in a traditional school. I am sure there are some significant advantages to decentralization, though there are also serious drawbacks that I have gone into in previous posts.

But that does not mean that I am willing to drink the Kool-Aid and declare the chartering of the vast majority of the schools in Orleans Parish a success. Itís appalling that this is what has happened in the media in New Orleans and nationally. I stand by my earlier comments that much of what we are getting is through the media pure hype and well-managed PR. The data is just not there to back the “success” of the charter schools, nor does it match the personal experience of teachers, students and parents who I have met.

Itís shameful that anyone who raises some of the very significant issues about charter schools is attacked as a defender of the old system. Frankly, this is the sort of group-think that the right has used in such situations as the Iraq War, again backed by the New York Times (two for two, guys?). Those opposed to the Iraq War were told to either “support the troops” or that they were supporting the terrorists.

Same thing here, where the small minds are saying either that we declare both the replacement of teaching populations and the charter school experiment successes without even looking closely at them or that we are the enemies of progress. What if, like the Iraq War, these big experiments are massive failures? What if, like the Iraq War, they are guided by faulty, ideologically-driven information and lies?

Sorry, folks, Iím not drinking the Kool-Aid. Iíve talked to too many teachers, parents and students. Bring me results. In the mean time, start listening to the teachers, and not just the new ones.

August 24, 2008

Rising Tide III

Filed under: Media,New Orleans Schools,Other — christian @ 1:34 pm

Iím disappointed that I didnít get to stay for all of Rising Tide III yesterday. And I donít just have such a high opinion of New Orleansí annual blogger conference because I was a panelist on the education panel. Not at all. First off, it was great to run into all the local bloggers and media-makers: G-Bitch, Patrick, Loki, Alan, Liprap, Oyster, Bart Everson, even Schroeder.

Second, the keynote speech by author John Berry, who wrote the original Rising Tide about the Great Flood of 1927, was amazing. I was thrilled to get to ask the man himself questions about the impact of the aftermath of the flood on the rise of southern populist leaders like Huey Long.

The few panels which I was able to catch were also excellent. I was particularly honored to be able to sit on the education panel with such an accomplished scholar as Leigh Dingerson from the Center for Community Change, but also the people who know so much from first-hand experience such as Cliff, G-Bitch and Jeffrey Berman. Getting to talk to Nation author and former Gambit Weekly editor Michael Tisserand definitely capped the day off.

But I must also note for the various bloggers covering this conference that I no longer work for United Teachers of New Orleans, so please do not list me as such.

August 19, 2008

Dark days for both public education and truth

Filed under: Media,New Orleans Politics,New Orleans Schools,We Are Not OK — christian @ 2:16 am

First off, a disclaimer. I am no longer working for United Teachers of New Orleans, as I have been for over a year. So while all the content on this blog was only ever my personal opinion and in no way reflected the positions of the union, well, now it does even less.

Today the School Facilities Master Plan was finally unveiled after months of waiting… or was it? I got a press packet from my good friend RSD Communications Director Siona LaFrance that contained a slim, vague jumble of papers; apparently the details will be released at the school board meeting at McDonogh 35 tomorrow and then made public the following day.

For the best description of what little we do know about the Master Plan I have to again refer you to Eli Ackerman of the blog We Could Be Famous.

Weíre shrinking the footprint again. I had the pleasure today of hearing a fascinating exchange between Eli and State Superintendent Paul Pastorek, who must the be the most overpaid, under-qualified bureaucrat in the state. Basically it went something like this…

Pastorek: “Those places where we rebuild schools, they will serve as catalysts for neighborhood recovery.”

Ackerman: “So then what is going to happen to neighborhoods where we donít rebuild schools? By extension, does that mean that if we donít provide public services like schools, that this will discourage people from rebuilding those neighborhoods?”

Pastorek: “Well, I donít think the placement of schools will have an effect on all areas of the city… high schools would not be a geographic attractor.”

There we have it in perfect bureaucratese, the sort of sublime logic that only those who make more than $300,000 a year can really understand. Where we build schools, people will come back to those neighborhoods. Where we donít rebuild schools… oh well, that doesnít really matter, does it? After all, weíre going to have these “magnet-like” schools…

On another front, last Thursday Paul Tough of the New York Times published a perfect piece of bullshit that I only now have come across. I talked to Paul when I worked for UTNO, and I recall how out of touch he was about the realities of New Orleans schools. He appeared to have no idea that the overwhelming majority of our public school students were low-income African Americans, and also did not seem to grasp the historical role of de-investment in the incredible inequities around education here.

But hey, I guess you donít have to be too much of an intellectual to work for the New York Times Magazine, do you?

It was enough for Tough to know that 1. schools were really bad before Katrina (no shit) and 2. the free market is great.

Maybe I have just not been smoking from the same Neoliberal bong that Paul has. Maybe I am burdened by the knowledge that experienced teachers make a significant difference in test scores, and that these ivy-league kids with TFA largely donít have any idea how to manage a class? Or perhaps it is what really shouldnít be inside knowledge for someone who calls himself a journalist- that the RSD and many of the charters are terrible messes.

Despite all the hype, test scores have not appreciably risen from pre-storm levels. Yes, they improved over last year- but I seriously hope so, given the abysmal chaos of the RSD under Robin Jarvis when the school takeover architects in their infinite wisdom decided they could run a district with half a dozen people as their main office staff.

What Vallas has accomplished he has largely done by more than doubling per-pupil expenditures, mostly by spending one-time monies that are supposed to be going to long-term needs and infrastructure. Give any urban school district in the country that kind of fiscal injection and you are going to see improvement.

But while Vallas has shrunk student-teacher ratios and brought technology into the classroom, he has also failed to fix basic problems. Ask any teacher and they will tell you that RSD professional development is a bad joke, run by salespeople and consultants who largely have no classroom experience. The implementation of the much-publicized technology like the “promethian boards” is abysmal; half the time it just doesn’t work. The discipline policy is toothless, where it is actually enforced. The paperwork errors are legion: in one small example a teacher friend of mine called me tonight and explained to me that the RSD had lost the 11th grade records for a large number of her former students, and has been sending them as seniors back to 11th grade classes.

And the charters? The great wunderkind of public education? Please. Again, most of them have no idea how to handle discipline. A third of teachers in Algiers think their merit-pay scheme TAP should be scrapped, and another third think it should be overhauled. And among the wonders of their decentralized model of education is a situation where no school can afford retiree health care for their employees because theyíve lost the economy of scale that a real school district has.

Charters have largely made what improvements they can claim in test scores by creaming their student populations via a combination of backdoor selective admissions and “soft expulsion”, where the parents of troublesome kids are “encouraged” to pull their kids out so the school wonít have to expel them. This, and their ability to attract private funding.

But donít believe the hype or the Times-Picayune headlines. Even with these advantages, many of the charters have not improved their test scores, and charter schools here, when you take the test scores of the same schools pre-storm, have largely dropped in performance. This echoes national trends, that charter schools perform on average slightly below regular public schools in standardized test scores.

But again, none of this seems to bother Paul Tough, who is busy chasing down attractive 23-year old ivy leaguers and falling head over heels for their dedication to saving the ignorant savages of New Orleans.

Hereís another story that didnít make it in to any of these reports: the RSD basically drove out the internationally renowned writing program Students At the Center (SAC) with a combination of neglect, bungling and outright hostility. This year there is no SAC at Frederick Douglass High School in the 9th ward, and the “reformer” Vallas and his cronies who he put in charge of academics, many of whom are overpaid consultants with no educational experience, are to blame.

Paul Tough basically swallowed the PR of New Schools for New Orleans hook, line and sinker, and came up with the sort of dross that Sam Winston was writing for Gambit Weekly before I took him to Einstein Charter in the fall of í07 to see how badly a school that has no real accountability can go. Tough should know better; he is a professional. I have to wonder; did he even talk to any teachers who weren’t recent TFA graduates?

This sort of shallow, ideologically loaded work is the reason that people in the rest of the country have no idea what is going on here.

August 18, 2008


Filed under: Class,Media,New Orleans Politics,Other,UNOP,We Are Not OK — christian @ 11:40 am

Everyone involved in policymaking in New Orleans today recognizes that public input is an essential component of the legitimacy of any plan or policy. But we also know that public opinion is unpredictable; that people will come down and express their opinions in a way that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, cannot be managed and diverted into the self-interest of planners, policy-makers, and the host of bureaucrats and non-profit flunkies who must accompany any process.

So what to do when public opinion, for PR reasons, is inevitable? We at the savvy bureaucrat offer you this handy-dandy guide for avoiding, at all costs, real public input while maintaining the necessary facade to keep your hands clean and bamboozle the majority of the public who will only find out about these things through newspapers which your PR people have good relationships with.

Without further ado, the savvy bureaucratís GUIDE TO AVOIDING PUBLIC INPUT IN PUBLIC MEETINGS.

Rule #1: Announce your meetings right before they happen.
Why give your critics advanced notice? If you can put a notice in the Times-Picayune a day before the event, all the better. Websites are also beautiful for this. Just have your webmaster put a little blurb on your website, say, a few hours before the event. If anyone bitches, hey, did you check the website? And the odds of people who are farther away from the process you are managing- in other words, ordinary working folks, checking your website is next to nil.

Bonus points- do this in states like Louisiana that have low levels of overall internet usage.

Rule #2: If possible, hold your meeting in the most obscure and distant location possible.
Why use city hall of the largest city in the state when you can use a hotel in some obscure town in the hinterland?

Rule #3: Hold meetings at a time when no-one who is not part of the bureaucracy could possibly attend.
Daytime meetings are more convenient for those of us who are in the in-crowd. We wouldnít want to extend our workdays unnecessarily by holding a meeting at, say, 7PM, now would we? We might be tired and cranky the next morning. Most ordinary working folks, in other words the people who will be affected by your plan, canít possible get off work at 2:30 PM on a Monday. So itís a great time for all of us who really matter, and it keeps the riff-raff out.

Rule #4: Delay. Delay. Delay.
About to put out something unpopular? Never fear! You can kill public interest by continually extending the deadline. Say youíll release it at May 31… no, July 17… no, September 1… no, September 18! No one will be paying attention when you finally unveil your plan.

Rule #5: Hold a tedious public meeting that reveals nothing.

Start the meeting by the sort of mutual self-congratulation that will assure everyone in the room who the important and unimportant people are. Talk about how you knew your fellow bureaucratís cousinís daughter in college. Talk about what a great plan you are unveiling, and how much work you put into it. Conduct other business. Whatever you need to do, but by all means DO NOT reveal actual content until much later, hours later if possible. By that time even the fiercest public watchdogs will be doing crossword puzzles if they havenít left to relieve the babysitter or go back to their day job.

And today, we have to give credit to (drumroll please…. not the New Orleans City Council (good jobs on #1 and #5, but tazers are a little crude, folks), not our long-time champions the Louisiana Recovery Authority (you guys wrote the book on this one), but our new champions of avoiding public input…

Concordia Architects and The New Orleans School Facilities Master Plan Team!

Way to go guys, on #1, #3, and #4! Canít wait for your meeting this afternoon so we can see you really smoke Ďem!