Free Minds Free People is swiftly approaching. As a youth-centered space for liberatory education, FMFP prioritizes listening to and supporting youth-led visions for education justice. In this blog entry, we hear from one of the youth organizations who will be at FMFP, Rethink out of New Orleans on their thoughts this Juneteenth.
Dear Black Students in Atlanta,
I’ve started this letter five times, at least. I keep thinking about all you brilliant Black minds in Atlanta, disenfranchised by many of the same type of people as we are here in New Orleans. I could see unskilled MBAs licking their chops, bored white 20-somethings looking to fail upward in your city, millionaire supporters of charterization lining up to fund the takeover of your schools, and no people in power considering the wants you, your families, and the communities you’re rooted in. They see any your educational reality as an opportunity for free market. We’ve seen how this plays out and it is my imperative to warn you. They are lying and scheming for their own benefit, and there is so much at stake if you don’t stop them.
You have been fighting already for your school system and as you continue to fight, don’t lose sight of who you are. The ways your communities and families love and support you not wrong because your teacher or administrator cannot comprehend them. Your culture is not a commodity or in need of refinement; your people’s history must not be repackaged by those who have everything to gain from obscuring it. Don’t listen to their lies about how innovation and choice will save hordes of hopeless, helpless youth. And know that when they say hopeless and helpless they are referring to you.
I know what they’ve done to you so far and how damaging they’ve been to you. They’ve already changed the rules of the game so they win and blamed you for losing, all to obscure the fact that the state disinvested in certain schools and areas of the city long ago. Agents of gentrification and displacement have staked their claims to housing and land since the ‘70s, and are looking to bring this unapologetic entitlement to privatizing public schools.
People will tell you what I’m saying isn’t true. This letter is to tell you how to handle them when they try to hoodwink you again and again. No matter what they say, a public charter does not provide public education in ways traditional public schools do. It’s a loophole for taking public funds and massive private donations to privately manage public schools like corporations, where profit for those in power always comes before people.
I’m seeing what they’ve done, what they’re doing and how similar our experiences are. The powers that are pushing for this Opportunity School District in Atlanta act innocent, but let me tell you something—they’re trying to pull us down into the Sunken Place.
New Orleanians remember when Hurricane Katrina decimated the poorest, Blackest parts of the city and policymakers took this opportunity to fast track the plan already in place to privatize public education. We remember the mass firings (7,000 teachers and 500 school employees) to intentionally bust unions while putting out a call to “human capital” organizations (Teach for America, TeachNOLA, City Year, Americorps). We remember amendments and bills being passed with swiftness like never before to allow the takeover and justify it by changing the scale used to determine which schools were considered “failing.” We remember being denied access to enrollment after their own schools after a charter takeover, or watching the local/state authorities close schools while funding new schools in other neighborhoods. While the Recovery School District was already in place before Katrina, it got a huge breath of new life while hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians were trying simply to recover their old lives.
In realizing crucial elements of this their master plan, drafted by these architects of reform, you gain a strange perspective on time and human pain, and effort. Other cities cannot hear what I hear whenever I hear about new nonprofits, millions for “school choice” and “charter autonomy.”
Watch the ways policymakers are moving, investigating strange bedfellows and cross-sector alliances at local, federal, state levels. The bevy of policies passed in the months after Katrina and the informal group of pro-charter government officials are eerily similar to the State Charter School Commission, and their ability to find loopholes and push legislation to realize their vision. Pro-charter government officials in Atlanta, just like in New Orleans, have money and people lined up to support their cause. Moreover, they can manufacture and organize information in their favor, convincing masses that they (should) have power and control over public education because they know what’s best for success.
And as is typical, people are leveraging the manufactured success of schools in New Orleans as rationale for privatization of school systems (and housing) in Nashville, Detroit, Reno and Las Vegas, and across North Carolina. When some of the same players are involved, you know it’s time to get out. We must know our collective history lest we walk the same paths again, falling into the same traps and being fooled by the same type of folk.
Don’t believe false prophets like John White, Doug Harris, Scott Cowen, Leslie Jacobs, and Paul Vallas. They will speak to you of improving their test scores to convince you that the experiment is working. When you ask them why expulsions are up, they won’t answer you. When you ask them to explain the phenomenon of disappeared students they don’t acknowledge your question. They are invested in white supremacy and will protect it at any costs. Children of color are not whole or human to them—how can we trust them to construct a school system rooted in their dignity? Paul Pastorek (Superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans, 2007-2011) consulted with Rick Snyder (governor of Michigan, 2011-present) immediately before Snyder recommended the state takeover of Detroit’s public schools. Pastorek is currently the co-executive director of the Broad Center, funded by a foundation that funnels millions of dollars to charter school development across the country.
Don’t trust those who voluntarily leave elected or appointed positions to enter into the private sector. Always question those that appear to be voluntarily giving up their institutional power. Trust and believe that they’ve found more power with less accountability elsewhere. Michelle Rhee recommended the takeover and charterization of four Atlanta public schools, the same schools Erin Hames recommended for takeover after she left a position in the Georgia governor’s office to open an educational consulting firm focused on state seizure of public schools. Her plan includes mass firings, school closures, and charter takeover of public schools. People like her are reminiscent of Leslie Jacobs, who spent time in the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and Orleans Parish School Board before a failed bid for mayor of New Orleans; that same year, she opened two nonprofits with her own wealth (one focused on keeping transplants in the city by connecting them to economic opportunities, the other focused on pushing pro-charter policies). Two years later, she was the recipient of the New Orleanian of the Year award. Follow the money, and you’ll find a charter mafia. Keep a running list of all the major players and the types of decisions they make to inform your strategy; the first time they show you who they are, believe them.
Don’t let them convince you that you are to blame for schools deemed failing. Over the last 15 years, Georgia’s governors have cut over $9 billion from the state education budget, and are blaming school struggles on local, often Black leadership. Meanwhile, the College and Career Readiness Index is rife with many of the same fallacies used to grade New Orleans schools. They will consistently change the rules of the game in their favor, and blame you for losing. The narrative will never be about their architecture, but about failures and shortcomings of traditional public education.
They’ll secretly court “education service providers” to bring “innovation and choice” which is code for “largely white operators who will run public schools like private companies.” These companies will get the red carpet rolled out for them and a pile of money to support their rapid growth, all the while manufacturing data and mobilizing people who exemplify their so-called success. But we know we can’t trust any of it. At no point is real education the highest priority. Once they take over, you can expect pressure on teachers to cheat or teach only to the test or just leave the school entirely. You can expect harsh discipline and zero tolerance policies, all meant to tame the wild animals they claim us to be and keep us away from the so-called jungles we’re growing up in. You can expect to be turned against your own parents. The power brokers will tell you that your parents don’t know and never knew how to raise you. How to love you. How to see you. The trick, you see, is that they want you to hate yourselves. They want you to see yourselves and people who look like you as worthless.
You know how gentrification works, right? Of course you do. First you have to be convinced that what you have and where you live is worthless. And the very same house, the same section 8 apartment, the same land that they say is too far gone to be restored is bought out from under you or taken with no compensation. The same thing happens to Black bodies and Black minds. They want to convince us that we have no value while our entire lives are snatched away from us.
Don’t be fooled by public meetings, requirements or suggestions of community involvement, or any space for resistance to charterization or school closures. By the time you hear about these meetings, the powers that be have likely already made their decisions. Alert your people of the ways in which they manufacture consent for whatever their original plan was to begin with. They’ll get Black folks from Atlanta to tell you how they understand your concerns, your struggle, your experiences; they’ll trigger you, gaslight you, and manipulate you to support them. Be wary—not all of our skinfolk are our kinfolk.
They’ll tell you that you’re better off with young white teachers. They’ll explain that you have more choice than ever, while they warehouse-shuffle at least—abuse and miseducate at most— you from charter to charter. They’ll assure you the secret lottery they use to place students does not give preference to certain types of students, and ask you not to worry about the white public charter school’s hidden requirements (to start: exorbitant extra fees, infallible code-switching skills, and unwavering willingness to be tokenized) all at the ready.
For those resisting privatization from inside schools, they’ll make you decide between staying in your school building, and having a school at all. As soon as they shuffle you out, they’ll renovate so that the school suddenly has air conditioning after years without it, or is no longer overrun with structural flaws that couldn’t be prioritized earlier. The largest Charter Management Organizations in New Orleans and the predominantly white charter schools do not coincidentally have the most coveted school buildings.
You can only be destroyed by believing that you are really stupid, violent, too much to handle, too dumb to learn, too ghetto to exist, that you belong in a cage, that you should be enslaved.
What we’re left with after school reform is a bunch of shiny warehouses where truly educating our youth is the lowest priority and antithetical to their goals. Those of us who can’t or simply won’t to survive a white supremacist, zero tolerance, testing-driven, dehumanizing school environment staffed by droves of unskilled, untalented transplants to the city are pushed out. We’re locked in Behavioral Intervention rooms with no windows, seating, or teacher supporting their learning. Meanwhile, those of us who are considered particularly dangerous are pushed out to diversion programs masquerading as job training programs or “alternative schools,” and jails masquerading as “study centers.” Sometimes we’re lucky enough to be pushed out to our own homes, where we’ll receive four hours of instruction because we’re struggling with our mental health or are unwilling/unable to attend school.
I tell you this because I love each of you figuring out how to handle the situation they’re constructing, and I am invested in your… no. our liberation. Please don’t forget it. I know they’re going to say I’m exaggerating, but I know Black folks. I also know what those in power do to make us believe there isn’t a system built on our backs, to destroy us. Take no one’s word, but trust your experience. Know where you came from to know where you’re going.
The world is deliberately constructed so you believe what they say about you. Fight it with the truth. I know and you know the invisible labor we’ve poured into our own education throughout history. Black people have always educated ourselves and each other for protection, for survival, and for freedom.
We must resist.
We must dismantle these systems built to destroy us and transform the ways in which power is held.
I see your resistance. Over 50 school districts have already announced their stance against charterization. I see y’all fighting today across all types of connections to the school system.
Do not forget love, and how you must survive. Do not forget that liberation is what we’re fighting for, and that true education is an essential part of our path to freedom.
We can’t be free if y’all ain’t free. If y’all still fightin’, so are we.
Here in New Orleans, we see you. We feel you. We got you.