The Katrina Education Lie | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Katrina Education Lie

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Shannon Eubanks

Among the many reflections on the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, the discussion of its effects on schools in New Orleans may be the most disingenuous. There is no doubt that pre-Katrina public schools in New Orleans were struggling, but the narrative is that post-Katrina, with its charter-school takeover, New Orleans education is better. Some even hint that Katrina was a godsend, that we should wipe the school slate clean and start over.

Two major pieces appeared last week, one in The New York Times and another from The Institute for Public Affairs, providing blistering rebuttals to this narrative. Both articles lay out the evidence that the "accomplishments" of charter schools in one of the poorest, most struggling school systems is a mirage.

In addition, the Network for Public Education has a study comparing charter schools in Louisiana to the state's traditional public schools, controlling for race, ethnicity, poverty and whether students qualified for special education. On eighth-grade reading and math tests, charter-school students performed worse than their public-school counterparts by enormous margins—two to three standard deviations.

Despite this evidence, we hear disturbing calls for a similar takeover of public education in Mississippi with the mantra that "more money is spent than ever before, but schools are no better." A few public-school opponents even have called for doing away with "government indoctrination centers" altogether. And it's not just talk radio: This scorn goes all the way up to Gov. Phil Bryant, who called public education in Mississippi an "abysmal failure."

Some claim that if we closed every school in the Delta and southwest Mississippi, the state would go from 48th to around 24th in the nation in education. Did education magically improve? No, but the numbers would look better. In effect, that's what happened in New Orleans. Keep the "desirable" students (and their scores), and force out the rest.

The problem, as it has always been with public education, is that we are asking schools to overcome the effects of conditions in the communities they exist in. It takes more resources to offer students in struggling communities the same opportunities as those in affluent ones.

Simply put, we have to spend more money in struggling schools—not to simply throw good money after bad, but to try and overcome outside factors. Research proves that two-thirds of student-achievement impact happens away from school. With students in stable, affluent homes in strong communities, this two-thirds is a plus. For those students in unstable, poor homes in struggling communities, this two-thirds is a minus.

Public schools reflect their communities. When people attack schools, they are actually attacking the communities those schools serve. Saying we should stop supporting "failing" schools is tantamount to saying we should stop supporting "failing" communities. But in both cases, we never made a serious attempt to improve them in the first place.

Mississippi has opposed public schools for decades. We resisted providing free textbooks in the 1940s; we consolidated schools to maintain segregation in the 1950s; we tried to abolish public schools altogether in response to integration in the 1960s; we tried to shift public funds to segregation academies in the 1970s; we resisted attempts to provide kindergarten and basic standards in the 1980s; we resisted adequately funding education in the 1990s; we resisted adjusting school funding to fix inequities in the 2000s; and we are determined to privatize education in the 2010s.

To those who say public education is a failure: Just when are we ever going to give it a chance to succeed? Are we ever going to try provide an adequate education to all our state's children, instead of finding excuses not to? Or have we decided as a people to accept the inequity as permanent, creating a dual system of education for the haves and the have-nots?

Shannon Eubanks is principal of Enterprise Attendance Center in Brookhaven.

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