Black Leaders (and Teachers) Matter

Andre Perry says education reform in New Orleans has failed the most important test…

Scholar, writer and education activist Andre Perry.

Scholar, writer and education activist Andre Perry.

EduShyster: 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.

EduShyster: 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 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.

EduShyster: 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?

NOLAPerry: 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.

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.

EduShyster: 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 Andre Perry 1get 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.

EduShyster: 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…

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.

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.

EduShyster: 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.

EduShyster: 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?

second linePerry: 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.

EduShyster: 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.

EduShyster: 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. Follow him on Twitter @andreperryedu.

19 Comments

  1. “This idea that we can’t have multiple players in the same space is ridiculous.”

    Is it? What if these multiple players are all trying to spend the same pot of money? What if the pot was inadequate even back when there was only one player and said pot hasn’t been added to much now that there are multiple players? How does that work?

  2. Here is a quote to supplement this article and all articles about school reform in New Orleans. It comes from Beverly McKenna from the May/June edition of the New Orleans Tribune, and it is truly pricelesss so I share it here, so Dr. Perry can read it, too.

    “If they [the RSD controlled schools] were measured by the same standards used to take over the schools Orleans Parish in 2005, the RSD would be foreced to relinquish all but four campuses under its control. Again, just to be clear and for the record: if the RSD were judged by the same standards used to take control of schools in New Orleans 10 years ago, the RSD would be left with only four schools.”

    Let that sink in for a while, all ye who apologize for the reform at any level.

    Really worth picking up a copy of the Tribune for the amazing overview and who’s who of the so-called school reform movement in New Orleans. After reading, I challenge anyone to say that the people driving the deform are about anything other than power and control.

    1. Do you have a link? The June/July 2015 issue is up and it’s unclear how to access the archives.

  3. BTW, I really don’t understand Perry’s rejection of the term “neoliberal”. He really should spend some time looking into what all that means and see if it doesn’t explain what’s happened in New Orleans. For starters, read Naomi Klein’s THE SHOCK DOCTRINE. No, not everyone involved in education reform is neoliberal, but the neoliberals are the ones driving the bus. Why does Perry think he’s become so disillusioned with education reform? Because the people controlling it aren’t about education at all.

    1. Thanks for pointing out Perry’s odd rejection of neoliberalism. I was baffled that someone who astutely saw through the reformy hype would fail to understand the imbalance of power and sanctioned inequality of neoliberal policies. And then I read this: “Our goal is not to improve a school in spite of the community. Our goal is to improve a community using schools. ”
      Dr. Perry denies the peril to black communities imposed by neoliberalism’s economic eugenics. Schools will fix poverty by fixing the black & brown victims.

      When will he see that black lives matter very little to reformy king makers and plutocrats- all neoliberal ideologues? KIPP’s millionaire founders Mike Feinburg & David Levin won’t even send their own kids to a KIPP school. KIPP subjects black kids to practices they would NEVER subject their own kids to: http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2013/12/one-hundred-kipp-5th-graders-in-single.html

      Exactly how does Perry thinks schools will improve communities unless the underlying economic structures of neoliberalism are disrupted and replaced?

  4. It’s a common trait among privatizers to object to the use of certain words, or run from those words. Andre Perry says that he doesn’t like the word neo-liberal.

    Sometimes words carry meaning, a meaning necessary to make a point.

    For example, the “corporate reformers” with whom Andre Perry is allied also run from the word “privatization” like Superman avoiding Kryptonite.

    I just did a google search and quickly found three such examples. In these cases: “privatization” of schools—or some word with a root “private”—is just some fictional “hobgoblin”, or “buzzword” that “we need to get away from”: (CAPS are mine)
    ————————————
    QUOTE #1:

    Mohammed Choudhury , the Policy Manager of
    teachers for New Unionism (a corporate-funded group…funding from the anti-union
    Bellweather Foundation… funded by Gates, Broad, Walton, etc.) wrote the following in L.A. School Report:

    CHOUDHURY:
    “Furthermore, (UTLA President Warren Fletcher’s) PEAC colleagues will cry loudly that their initiative matters in their small world because of the ‘hobgoblins’ they like to hammer over their members, such as ‘PRIVATIZATION’ and ‘over-testing’
    supposedly haunting our schools.”

    Here it is in context:

    http://laschoolreport.com/a-backwards-mindset-leadership-in-utla-continues-to-promote-adult-needs-over-students/
    —————————————————————
    QUOTE #2:

    A pro-Parent Trigger Op-Ed from T. Willard Fair, of Foundation for Florida’s Future and member of Florida’s State Board of Education, appointed by former governor Jeb Bush, a proponent of school privatization.

    (NOTE: the Op-Ed appears on the website of
    Parent Revolution; along with T. Willard Fair’s
    The Foundation for Florida’s future, Parent Revolution is also funded by Gates, Broad, Walton, etc.)

    T. WILLARD FAIR:
    “Those vested in the current system attack choice. They throw out buzz words such as ‘PRIVATIZING education’ or ‘corporate reformers’ or ‘destroying public education.'”

    Here’s the T. Willard Fair quote in context:

    http://parentrevolution.org/being-poor-doesnt-mean-youre-poor-parent-op-ed-urban-league-miamis-t-willard-fair
    ———————————————————
    Quote #3:

    Next, you have former and failed LAUSD School Board candidate Antonio Sanchez in a conversation with former and failed School Board candidate, Robert Skeels. (For his campaign, Sanches received funding and support from the Coalition for Schools, funded by… once again… Gates, Broad, Walton, etc.)

    SKEELS:
    “I asked (Sanchez) my stock question that I ask all political candidates, ‘What is your stance on school privatization?’ I was taken aback by his response, especially given we were in an union hall.

    “(Sanchez) said., ‘I don’t like that word PRIVATIZATION, we need to get away from using that word.’ ”

    Like the two folks above, Sanchez, at the time, was coached into spewing forth this stock response when asked his opinion on “privatization.”

    Here is the Sanchez quote in context:

    http://rdsathene.blogspot.com/2013/03/monica-ratliff-for-lausd-at-empress.html

    ————————————-

    It’s a little uncanny that you keep getting the same party line almost verbatim from such disparate sources—disparate, but with the common denominator of their all being funded by Gates, Broad, Walton, etc.

    Since the public doesn’t want schools privatized, and the word “privatization” (and other derivatives of “private”) has such a negative connotation with the public, the new strategy seems to be to devalue the word’s currency, much like Andre Perry is trying to devalue and dismiss the word “neo-liberal.”

    Watch out for more of the same in the future.

  5. Andre Perry says the following:

    “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.”
    —————————————-

    Correct me if I am wrong, but Perry is from New Orleans, and has been speaking about schools in New Orleans, AND THERE ARE NO TRADITIONAL PUBLIC SCHOOLS IN NEW ORLEANS. THERE IS NO “TRADITIONAL SPACE”. The entire district is composed of privately-managed charters. There are no “multiple players” such as traditional public schools.

    What is he talking about?

    Also, the UNO Charter Network—for which Perry recently worked as UNO’s New Orleans branch’s CEO—has been embroiled in multiple highly-publicized scandals in its Chicago branch, where UNO first originated.

    The Number Two guy there (Miguel d’Escoto) was pressured into resigning by the Number One guy there (Juan Rangel), whereupon the Number One guy scapegoated the Number Two guy, laying on him the entire blame for the financial improprieties and scandal that the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper uncovered.

    While evidence shows that the Number Two guy was also heavily implicated, he nevertheless sued the Number One guy—who was also culpable—for the undue pressure to resign, and for subsequently being blamed for the whole thing.

    It’s quite a story:

    http://www.chicagomag.com/city-life/January-2014/uno-rangel-lawsuit/

  6. Perry also said:

    “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.”

    ————–

    Andre, here’s something that’s required for successful schools: a unionized workforce of teachers. The states with the highest percentage of union membership, and the strongest job protections, are the tops in academic achievement.

    The states with no teachers union, or weak teachers unions—i.e. just “associations” with no real power, and no collective bargaining—and no job protections are the lowest in academic achievement. (And that latter category includes Louisiana.)

    The highest-achieving school districts also have elected school boards that oversee the public schools, and where the schools are transparent and accountable to the public, and which educate all the public—including the most expensive to educate… the Special Ed., English language learners, foster care kids, homeless kids, kids who are disruptive in their behavior, etc.

    And since 2005, we all know New Orleans ain’t one of those.

  7. The school takeover in New Orleans is about more than education. The powers that run this city financially decided that they would eliminate the Black middle class by eliminating African American teachers. Next they would recruit young White teachers. That would serve to purposes. First it would bring whites to the city. Even if they did not stay in education, they would love the city and stay. Second, it would provide the necessary people to fill the positions of the teachers who had been fired.
    The purpose of the RSD was to destroy the public school system as it existed. Paul Vallas set the system up to fail. The children were not even given a chance. Teachers were instructed to continue lessons whether the students understood the material or not. When administration complained that students were being left behind to Gary Robicheau, who was Vallas right hand, Gary responded ” We can’t save them all.” This man is currently the CEO of Renew Charter Schools.
    The next plan to disenfranchise the city came in the form of an large homeowner tax increase. The last and final blow to the African American citizens in this community was that realtors were informed to send Blacks who were looking for homes out to New Orleans East.
    Teach for America started out as a very good intentioned program that was turned into an experiment to empower the Whites and get rid of the school board, the unions and the middle class people of color by taking over not only the schools but also the city with the help of the people with money both in and outside of this fair city. The CEO’s make the money, the plans and the programs even thought some of them have no degree in education. The pipe line to jail for young men of color is real here. The miseducation of special education is real here. The relocation of African Americans is real. The fact that most of the teachers from TFA have problems with discipline is real.
    I love New Orleans. I love the students here. I know teachers who are intelligent and dedicated who are currently retired, not by choice, sitting home or are working as aides to teachers who have no discipline. My heart aches. I was take out of a reading specialist position and placed in a hall as a disciplinarian because the teachers had no controll over there classes. The students would just walk out. The school leader found out I was a good disciplinarian so she place me in the hall because the students would look in the hall see me and go back into the class. The classes were out of controll.
    The parents of students of color find their children in failing schools without any choice. The better schools are already full. Most of these schools were doing well under Orleans Parish. Some of these schools get around the one application program. These schools are reserved for certain students. I see some schools receiveing public school money and acting as private schools for a certain few.
    The teachers, the school board, the community , the parents, the students and the voters in Orleans Parish have lost control. This is why the people here are upset and rightfully so.

  8. I really enjoy reading Andre Perry’s work, and I am about as pro-public schools as it gets! He really tries to bridge the gap between the two sides, which is vital.

    I agree that the anti-reform movement could really benefit from a more nuanced and more politically aware approach. It is one thing to be mad, it is another thing to use that anger and passion to get things done. You see so many people posting on Diane Ravitch’s blog who only have attack mode- we need to find a way to make those attacks more sustainable action.

    That being said, I don’t see how anyone can understand the definition of neo-liberalism and not see that it is present in the charter school debate- Just like it has completely taken over our prison system. Same exact ideology, same exact management tactics, same exact marketing and lobbying strategies.

    1. It may be the nature of popular blogs that the comment space ends up being dominated by posters that seek to preserve idealogical purity. It is far easier to engage in ad hominem arguments and name calling than to engage in meaningful discussion.

        1. Dienne,

          I have never understood why Dr. Ravitch was insulted by my defense of gay marriage and my condemnation of groups that say that teachers in a gay marriage should not be allowed to teach in their schools. Perhaps you could enlighten me.

  9. Mr. Perry is the same person who came north to be the founding Dean at Davenport University for their new urban leadership institute, and then quit before it ever got off the ground. He’s from the Peter Cunningham school of corporate reformers: smile, use gentler language, and ask for more civility in the “reform debate,” but still work to attack teachers, destroy unions, and privatize schools.

    Mr. Perry wants to tamp down the rhetoric around school reform from its critiques–like Diane Ravitch and Peter Greene–because his funders don’t like the heat and light of the attention it brings to their efforts to privatize our schools. I don’t blame him–it can’t feel too good to sense that the tide is turning against you.

  10. In the spirit of discussion it would be nice to see Andre take on these tougher critiques here in the comments. Maybe you can reach out to him Jennifer?

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