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Let’s Not Bad-Apple Our Way Out Of Systemic Issues

Never a dull moment in New Orleans public schools. For a system with approximately only 40,000 kids, it surely knows how to pack in the drama with what feels like weekly episodes of new, tragic and increasingly complex shenanigans. The latest story arc has been focused on the trials and tribulations of Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy. You can read a (partial) backlog of drama here, here and here

Public responses have pointed a singular focus on the individuals — who said or did what, who didn’t fulfill their role, who needs to do something now. In attempts to influence the resolution of this drama, proposed solutions have focused on individual behaviors more than the conditions that allow them to play out. All this just furthers a narrative already proven disruptive to public institutions: that the problem with troubled schools is individual people, not the system, and that if we swap out the bad actors (or at least quietly move them) the system will course-correct itself. New Orleans has heard this before about its schools in the same way communities across the country hear it when they have the misfortune of running into a “bad apple” police officer.

New Orleans has heard this before about its schools in the same way communities across the country hear it when they have the misfortune of running into a “bad apple” police officer.

Harney’s troubles, though conveniently attributable to specific actors, are just a symptom of larger systemic issues. A system-level view opens up a conversation about why the misconduct went unnoticed for so long, and how complicit the system is in its existence. Instead — and with a tinge of drama — we’re reading that those involved “have never seen anything like this before.” Language that implies this is an anomaly, a few bad actors who drove a single school off the rails.

Yet Edgar P. Harney is not the only school to have:

…And this is just a fraction of what parents, students and teachers know and experience every day.

Even a quick review of the last 10 years of New Orleans education practice clearly shows that Harney is not an anomaly. By focusing on individual adults in one school site, other actors can distance themselves from the bad behavior under review and their complicity in creating the situation they are now attempting to resolve. By calling out board chairs and school principals by name followed by a long list of misdeeds, others across the system can easily dismiss it as “Well, that’s not us” and continue with business as usual… until it’s them featured in an exposé in The Lens.

Fixating on individuals doesn’t push leaders to think critically about upholding an inequitable system ripe for malfeasance, and how this status quo protects the power and privilege they enjoy on their own campuses.

All conversations about individual actors and actions at Harney must converge into a single conversation about the system that governs all of this. The depth of one school’s troubles should give us pause to think about new ways to lead, rather than new people to fill soon-to-be-vacated seats. For now, Orleans Parish School Board will enforce contracts and laws that charter management organizations (CMOs) are subject to. At the very least, then, this means New Orleans needs to take another critical look at the policies that are being enforced: namely, the contracts that CMO’s sign with the district, requirements for assembling and maintaining a governing board, and standards for addressing issues within more reasonable time frames.

Fixating on individuals doesn’t push leaders to think critically about upholding an inequitable system ripe for malfeasance, and how this status quo protects the power and privilege they enjoy on their own campuses.

As it stands, CMO’s have almost unrestricted latitude in assembling their governing boards. At least from what we can see, the district imposes no requirement that board members demonstrate experience and skills in school management, or even pretend to be responsive to the communities they serve. Most school’s websites don’t include qualifications or contact information for their board. We hear from families all the time that don’t know how to make an appeal to the board about school-level issues or where to go if they have an issue with the board itself. And even though all schools are required to do so, not all schools list board meeting dates, locations and meeting agendas. Boards can also, it seems, abdicate the main responsibility they were charged with — and contracted to do — with little to no warning and, most pitifully, no real penalty. As of this year, law states that each charter school board must include a parent of a current student. We have our doubts about compliance.

It’s long past time to reconsider policy that allows for un-vetted groups of people, who have no accountability to the public, be given free rein over the people’s money.

As it stands, the system hands over millions of public dollars to 8 to 12 mystery figures with no assurance that they’re capable of administering that money properly or ethically. As unproven operators apply to OPSB for additional school contracts, it’s long past time to reconsider policy that allows for un-vetted groups of people, who have no accountability to the public, be given free rein over the people’s money.

Additionally we must ask “How much time is enough?” The length of time we allow our children to bear the cost of fraud says more about our real standards than a state test ever could. When it comes to compliance and performance issues, schools are given quite a bit of time to get it together while they fail kids and communities. Harney had time to mess up, time to get warned, time to address their issues, time to not be in compliance with those warnings, time to hire and fire multiple principals, time to subject students and teachers to leadership chaos, and now time to phase out. The same can be said about every single one of the other 40+ schools sanctioned or closed since 2005 for academic, special education, leadership or other access issues.

We can surmise that every single individual adult involved in wasting this time — with their “experience”, professional degrees, and social and professional capital and networks — will recover and move on (most likely, as history tells us, to the next school). As for the students and families caught up in this drama, the extent of the damage to their education prospects and life goals remains to be seen. But instead of new policies to prevent school disruption, the news just brings more E.P. Harneys, each time with new plot twists and compelling characters. Focusing on the bad apples over the barrel they’re in just enables more rot. The whole system requires review, not just individual schools and board chairs. All policy concerning charter schools, school boards and authorizer powers must be treated as living documents, subject to regular review and revision to prioritize the education of students over the autonomy of adults who are either ill-equipped for or undeserving of the responsibility.

Focusing on the bad apples over the barrel they’re in just enables more rot.

Harney is a cautionary tale, not a bad apple. If we don’t want to see this plot unfold again we’d do best to take a look at the policies and structures governing the whole bunch. The best resolution for all Harneys — present and future — is a system overseen by those with the most at stake. The public can and must set boundaries to protect their children and families, and hold charters accountable for fulfilling their contracts, through community organizing and a representative governing board. As a partner the public needs an authorizing body not just committed to enforcing existing policies, but bold enough to challenge the status quo and advance new policy that clearly prioritizes the interests of kids and families over the convenience of adults.

Until then, kick your feet up and make another bowl of popcorn, because it appears the latest season of System of Schools: New Orleans is only getting started.

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