“No liberation without education”- Angela Y. Davis
Stepping into a new decade gives us pause to think about all that has happened previously and what lies ahead. It’s been almost 15 years since Hurricane Katrina- a disaster used as cover for a complete overhaul of the public education system in New Orleans. It’s been 10 years since OPEN began its work with community and education stakeholders to build and sustain a common definition for public education that included community voice, values and priorities. Our theory for change was that with strong and continued community involvement at the policy tables where public education decisions are made that systems actors would have no choice but to incorporate community concerns and needs into educational systems and programs. To a degree this strategy has yielded some wins both with OPEN and many other local advocacy organizations who have pushed for changes in and around schools. But in New Orleans, as elsewhere, as the people push, the system swerves. Just as great advocacy has been happening to increase quality, strengthen accountability and protect the rights of students, the system has also shifted to decentralize accountability and effectively shield itself from any *real* response to gross missteps and unfulfilled mandates. In the face of unethical behavior towards children we see adults point fingers and legally maneuver out of harm’s way. Goal posts have changed to explain away failures while parents and students are gaslit into compliance. So going into this decade we find the same conversations being teed up about how to make the system “work”. And we are sobered by the fact that these conversations will not be very different than the ones we’ve been having over the last 65 years of public education policy.
Sixty-five years after Brown v. Board (1955)- a major landmark federal decision to desegregate schools- and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)- a federal policy created to address inequities in schools- we are still having the same conversations about equity for marginalized students and their families. How we talk about public schools and what to do with them as they become Blacker, browner and poorer has changed while the fundamental aspects that create disparities between white affluent children and everybody else have remained in tact: a property tax-funded education system, housing segregation, educational institutions mired in racism, sexism and classism and a legal system that provides a path towards equity in one decision but adds roadblocks to it in another (see Milken v. Bradley (1974)).
Meanwhile education advocacy has grown new branches to respond to what happens when we fail to tackle the root causes of injustice and inequity. Now alongside the fight for better curriculum, experienced teachers, quality facilities, funding and high standards advocates must also address the new entangled pipelines and pathways to exclusion, prison and other interactions between our young people and violent state apparatuses. Over the last 6 decades we have only seen attempts at technical and cosmetic fixes to these issues that have mostly focused on reforming oppressed people and making the system look better. During this same time, privileged and affluent communities have been incentivized to abandon public schools, erect iron gates around their school districts with high priced homes far away from Black and poor people and have this behavior encouraged and protected by local, state and federal policy.
Focusing on how to reform oppressed people rather than the behaviors of the privileged has been the wrong way to ensure equity and quality for marginalized children. The fact is that we can’t reform, innovate or discount our way out of these unjust roots. In order for all children to have access to a great education our fundamental values, political and economic systems would have to radically change. Given our current social and political climate that level and depth of change is a long way off.
Yet 40,000 children attend public schools in New Orleans- majority of them Black, brown and low-income. And while they are in public schools so will we be. We will continue to engage in conversations about racial, wealth and other inequalities in public (education) systems that impact our families and communities. We also, though, will not wait for radically different outcomes to emerge from a system that was designed to produce what we have now. It is especially not the time for marginalized and oppressed communities to wait for promises to be fulfilled in the face of millions of dollars, media and political power propping up the exact education models and labor formations that continue to take us in the wrong direction. Instead of banging our heads up against that wall our energy and time could be better spent creating beautiful alternatives based in a wholly different set of values and priorities.
In 2020+ OPEN is committed to a new public education advocacy that centers the experiences of those marginalized within and by the public education system- namely Black, brown, special needs, LGBTQIA+ and low-income students, families and their advocates- and reimagines a new world rooted in respect, love and justice for them. Our programs and advocacy will focus on policies and practices that create just and free learning communities both within and outside of traditional school walls. Sometimes this will look like getting systems actors to act and calling out gross and unjust privilege. It may look like identifying and sharing best practices directly from classrooms and the experiences of teachers, students and parents. Other times it’s working with self- determined communities to create what they need in programs and formations that they define and control.
If you are about this kind of work we’d love to shape the events and programs with you that will support children, families and communities in New Orleans in getting their best education and living their best lives. In past years OPEN has engaged hundreds in events and programs aimed to keep the community informed and active in public education advocacy. This year our work is to make these events and programs more aligned with a vision towards a liberating education that exists past traditional school walls and equity and justice for those within the traditional public school system.
We have something planned for each part of the year. If you’d like to join us as a steering committee member to bring this vision to life let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s build together.
In the spring we host the Policy Breakfast where our lived experiences are connected to the state legislature. At this event the community understands the state level policies that impact their school experiences and critically reflect with policymakers and community stakeholders about how the system is working, what’s on the menu and who is at the table.
Our annual fall event- Public Education Week- supports parents, students and other community stakeholders in understanding, navigating and advocating within the public education system through information, training and community building. It’s an opportunity to understand the state of the public education system and critically reflect on quality, access and equal protections.
A revised OPEAs is making a comeback. One thing we often hear is that “good things are happening across schools” irrespective of their letter grade. And we believe this based on conversations with teachers, students and parents. This winter we want to identify and highlight best equity practices in schools at an event based on recognition and acknowledgment of who and what is working well with our children and in the spirit of sharing best practices throughout the education community.