An Introduction

Jennifer Guerra and Sarah Hulett
Monday, May 17, 2010

A teacher helps students at Banneker Elementary in New Orleans. (photo by Jennifer Guerra)

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Detroit has one of the worst school systems in the country. The finances are a mess. The dropout rate is one of the nation’s highest. And those students who do graduate, in some cases, still can’t read.

At one time, the same could be said of New Orleans’ schools.

But things have changed in the Big Easy, and education reform leaders around the country are looking to the city to see what’s working, and what, if anything, can be replicated. We’re going to spend the next two weeks taking a look at the two school systems, and what lessons New Orleans might hold for Detroit in our series “Rebuilding Detroit Schools: A Tale of Two Cities.’


SARAH HULETT: Hi Jen. So, you spent some time in New Orleans taking a look at the reforms that happened in after Hurricane Katrina. What did folks down there tell you about what the schools were like before the storm?

JENNIFER GUERRA: I talked to a bunch of people in New Orleans about what the schools were like pre-Katrina, and there was a 6th grader named Waynell Fountain who I thought described it best:

WAYNELL FOUNTAIN: It was like the teachers didn’t really care about you and stuff, and we wasn’t eating lunch like we were supposed to, and every time you’d go outside for recess, there was shooting and all that around us, so I didn’t like that school.

JENNIFER GUERRA: Also on the most recent test scores before the hurricane hit, more than half of the students that took Louisiana’s standardized tests failed to reach even “basic” competence in math and English.

SARAH HULETT: And in both these districts, Detroit and New Orleans, they saw constant changes at the top.

Jeffrey Mirel is an education historian at the University of Michigan. He says in Detroit, there were multiple shakeups that included changes to how the school board was elected, and putting the mayor in charge.

JEFFREY MIREL: I mean you have at least a half-dozen different governance changes from 1970 up to the present. None of them, none of them have improved the quality of what went on in the classroom.

CHERYLLYN BRANCHE: Certainly administratively, we’ve changed staff at central office like people change shoes.

JENNIFER GUERRA: Branche is a grade-school principal in New Orleans. She says the district went through something like 8 superintendents in the 7 years leading up to Hurricane Katrina.

SARAH HULETT: Yeah, and money has been a huge problem in both districts. Ghost employees on the payrolls, people stealing cash. And both school systems racked up deficits in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

JENNIFER GUERRA: But then Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, and most of the schools were so flood-damaged they couldn’t reopen, and kids from the district were scattered across the country.

So that left Louisiana with pretty much no choice but to shut down the New Orleans’ school system. The state declared the city’s school district defunct and fired all 4,000 teachers, and the old school board took over a handful of the best performing schools, leaving the rest of the schools, more than 100, to be put into a state-run Recovery School District created for failing schools.

Then, they brought in the fixer to reboot the system:

PAUL VALLAS: I saw it as a challenge, but I love challenges.

JENNIFER GUERRA: Paul Vallas has made a career out of being a fixer. He led an effort to reform the Chicago Public School system, and after that Philadelphia’s. Since his arrival in New Orleans in 2007, he shut down the worst schools, he reopened the majority of schools as charter schools, and the rest are directly run by the state. The goal is to eventually get all the schools to operate like charters:

PAUL VALLAS: They are schools that have control of their own finances, they are schools that can hire, and their teachers can make personnel decisions based on merit, they can promote based on performance, they can pay based on performance, they have the autonomy to determine length of day and year.

JENNIFER GUERRA: But that autonomy does comes with a price. After Katrina, when the state fired all the teachers, it also got rid of the collective bargaining agreement, which effectively dismantled the New Orleans’ teachers union. And every single teacher had to reapply for his or her job.

PAUL VALLAS: Well, it’s like bankruptcy. When corporations declare bankruptcy, all the old agreements, all the old relationships and contracts are gone. All the old commitments basically evaporate and you have to establish new commitments. It’s the only way to keep the school district from free fall. So that’s why Detroit has to take that type of approach, I believe, which is why I’ll never be recruited to Detroit.

ROBERT BOBB: I knew that this would be rough and tumble, but I didn’t realize how rough and tumble this position would be.

SARAH HULETT: Robert Bobb is a native son of Louisiana who Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm recruited to put Detroit Public Schools’ finances in order.

Bobb says Detroit’s political realities mean the school district probably cannot do what New Orleans did, and become mostly charter schools. Unlike New Orleans, Detroit has a strong teachers’ union. It has a school board that still wields some power. And there’s still a good deal of anti-charter sentiment in the community.

But Bobb says he is looking to take a page from New Orleans’ playbook.

At a meeting with his finance team in what he calls the “war room,” Bobb explains that what he wants to do is create two school systems within Detroit. One of them would be called the “New Co,” that’s lingo from the business world when a company wants to hold onto its valuable assets and get rid of its debt.

ROBERT BOBB: I want to lay out the first part of NewCo. I want to tell ‘em, this is what the school district’s gonna look like, and then we should have the portfolio schools that we’re gonna put in there, and it should be like the highest performing schools. The very high performing schools should be part of NewCo.

SARAH HULETT: The “NewCo” would include the handful of highly regarded Detroit Public Schools. The rest, and that would be the vast majority of them, would go into something like New Orleans’ recovery district. Bobb calls it the “OldCo.”

JENNIFER GUERRA: And like with anything, some people love the idea of reform and some people don’t.

SARAH HULETT: All this week, we’re going to look at what’s working in New Orleans.

JENNIFER GUERRA: And what’s not…

SARAH HULETT: And whether the Big Easy offers valuable lessons or a cautionary tale for education reform in the Motor City.

To hear other stories in the series “Rebuilding Detroit Schools: A Tale of Two Cities” and see related photos, videos and information, click here.

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