Just two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the city fired 7,500 public school teachers, launching a new push to privatize the school system and build a network of charter schools. Many accused lawmakers of trying to break the powerful United Teachers of New Orleans union. Today former President George W. Bush will return to the city to speak at the Warren Easton Charter High School. We speak to the New Orleans actor and activist Wendell Pierce, whose mother was a teacher and union member for 40 years, as well Gary Rivlin, author of Katrina: After the Flood. He recently wrote a piece for The New York Times titled “Why New Orleans’s Black Residents Are Still Underwater After Katrina.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we are joined by three guests here: Monique Harden of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights; Gary Rivlin, author of Katrina: After the [Flood]; and Wendell Pierce, the actor and also author of The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken.
Gary Rivlin, I’d like to start with you on this segment, the issue on education. One of the most astonishing things that occurred in the weeks after the storm was a decision of the then-governor, Kathleen Blanco, to close the entire public school system and reopen a recovery authority school system. Could you talk about what happened to the schools, the privatization and the creation of all these charter schools in New Orleans, and what’s been the result 10 years later?
GARY RIVLIN: It makes me think of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, the opportunity that a disaster presents. The governor had wanted to take over many of the local schools in New Orleans prior to Katrina, and she had taken over a few of the worst-performing schools. Katrina happens, and within two months the state had taken over virtually every public school in New Orleans.
And, you know, the real problem is that for years, for six, seven years, it just was chaos. Here are people who were displaced. You know, they’re struggling to come home, and they just want a sense of place, a sense of home. There are no neighborhood schools anymore. People would sign up for one school, a charter school, and it would be closed a year or two later, and they have to go find another. Parent after parent told me the story of their child at a bus stop at 6:00 a.m. in the dark to, you know, take two buses to get to their school every day. It just—it was chaos.
There was cherry picking. You know, I mean, nowadays we all know that schools are measured by how high their scores are. And so, especially early on—it’s gotten a little bit better, but especially early on, they would just refuse some students. The highest expulsion rate in the country was in Orleans Parish schools. Why? Because they wanted to improve their numbers. You know, there was a lawsuit that the schools were not doing their duty of taking care of the special needs students. It was settled a year or two ago, and seemingly it’s gotten better.
But, you know, it’s just like a generation of kids who it had endured. You know, they’re eight, 10, 12 years old at the time of Katrina. They see that the government doesn’t care about them. They’re scattered to the wind, some of them, you know, under gunpoint. I mean, remember, people were being brought on planes, on buses, with armed soldiers as if they were prisoners, sent somewhere off without being told where they’re going. You know, they’re living disembodied for several months, for a couple years. And, you know, they come back to chaos. There’s traumatized kids in this traumatized system.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to put this question to Wendell Pierce. It was a piece that appeared in Chicago by an editorial board member of the Chicago Tribune. Her name was—is Kristen McQueary. She wrote a piece about Chicago’s financial crisis, titled “In Chicago, Wishing for a Hurricane Katrina.” She wrote, quote, “I find [myself] wishing for a storm in Chicago—an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto [the] rooftops.” She later apologized for offending the city of New Orleans. Wendell Pierce, you’re a New Orleans native. Your parents are from New Orleans. Your grandparents are from New Orleans. Can you respond to this? And also talk about the struggle for who has made it in the last 10 years in New Orleans and who hasn’t, what communities have thrived, and the fact that 100,000 African-American New Orleanians are no longer in New Orleans.
WENDELL PIERCE: First of all, I found that editorial so offensive. I called it “blasphemously evil” for someone to wish for a disaster that killed over 1,800 people as a way to cleanse their city of some sort of political policies that she disagreed with. Not only was the writer offensive and owed the city and all of those who lost relatives 10 years ago an apology, but I can’t believe that the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board allowed it to go into print. So that was the thing that was really offensive.
And just doubling back on what Gary was saying about the education system, I want you to remember that the United Teachers of New Orleans, the union that my mother was a part of all of her life, her 40 years of teaching in the school system, was one of the largest unions and most powerful unions in the state of Louisiana. It was predominantly African-American and women. And when the floodwaters were still rising in New Orleans, the first official—one of the first official acts that the governor did was to fire all the teachers. It wasn’t by happenstance, it was by design. You saw the political manipulations and taking advantage of the crisis, as it were.
And we should not let the education reform that is happening in New Orleans go unchallenged, because just in October of last year, the Cowen Institute at Tulane, that put out a study and released data on the progress of the charter school system now, actually had to admit that they cooked the books, that they changed the data to make sure that it looked better, because what’s happening is a raid, a raid of the treasury, of the money set aside for public education to be given to private companies, private companies in education. And then they’re changing—they’re changing the status quo to make sure that they keep their charters, to make sure that they keep the flow of money coming into the corporation. Remember, the first rule of law when it works—in a business or in a corporation, is to make a profit. And the only way you make a profit if you’re a charter school is to keep that charter. And the only way you keep that charter is to make sure that you give the appearance that you are not failing.
And they’re leaving a lot of people and a lot of kids on the way—on the side. And they’re leaving them in a worse position than they were before. If you don’t go to the most needy children in your society and help them—as Gary was saying before, the disabled and special needs and special education kids were not having any of their needs met, because it is not required in so many of the charters to even have that sort of part in your education system. So, a lot of people are being left behind.
I have, in Pontchartrain Park, a community development corporation, where we, residents, initiated our own reconstruction, but—as we got the properties that were sold back in the Road Home program in our community of Pontchartrain Park, so that we can put them back into commerce. But we are restricted to only selling to low-income, 80 percent average median income and below. I have no problem with bringing in low-income people to the community. That’s how my parents got a chance at first getting their first home in the 1950s. But what’s happening is to make sure that you displace people who have been forced out of public housing and have only certain areas that they can have access to homes, because then public housing is only one-third public housing anymore, the other two-thirds is now market rate.
And it’s taken all 10 years to rebuild those public housings. I call it displacement by delay. You know, it took so long for us to even reconstitute public housing in New Orleans, that 10 years, if somebody hasn’t, you know, placed roots in Atlanta or Texas or wherever they were displaced to, the likelihood of them coming back is very small. So, it’s by design, it’s by policy. You know, I say in my book, my grandparents always taught us there are those who don’t have your best interest at heart, and there are people in positions of power and policymakers who don’t have all the city’s best interests at heart. And they’re constituting policy and taking actions to make sure that only certain communities are coming back and other communities are suffering.