New Orleans Schools in Uneasy Condition

Louisiana says two-thirds of New Orleans' public schools are academic failures. The district is $25 million in the red and can't explain where the money went. The school board recently voted to turn over the system's financial management to an outside firm. State legislators are debating a move to take control of the district. Susan Roesgen of NPR station WWNO reports.

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Summer break can't come soon enough this year in New Orleans. The city's school system is in trouble. Test scores are bad, millions of dollars are missing and there's a bitter struggle for control of the schools. From member station WWNO in New Orleans, Susan Roesgen reports.

SUSAN ROESGEN reporting:

Walking her two small children home from school, Taquel Brown(ph) worries that they aren't learning what they're supposed to be learning. Second-grader Terrence Brown(ph) doesn't know what five minus four is, something most kids learn in first grade.

Ms. TAQUEL BROWN (Mother): Only one hand, take away four. Take down four.

TERRENCE BROWN: That's two.

Ms. BROWN: No.

You know, the parents do try at home--well, I try at home with my children, but if they're not getting the proper learning at school, they won't achieve anything. And that's my biggest concern.

ROESGEN: Two-thirds of all New Orleans public schools are classified by the state as academic failures. Most of the schools don't have enough certified teachers or textbooks. And in one of the most embarrassing examples of how little some students actually learn, a high school valedictorian last year flunked the state graduation exam not once but six times before she finally passed it and got her diploma. Leslie Jacobs is a member of the state Board of Education, which oversees the local Orleans Parish School Board.

Ms. LESLIE JACOBS (Louisiana Board of Education): Twelve years ago, this district had 84,000 students. Today, it is down to, I believe, 62,000. But of those 62,000 students, at least 35, 40,000 of them are in failing schools and they're being warehoused. We have a moral duty to figure out how to fix these schools.

ROESGEN: How the schools reached this point is a familiar tale of white flight, poverty and apathy. With few exceptions, white parents have pulled their children and their money out of the schools, leaving the student population 93 percent African-American and poor.

But New Orleans seems to have outdone itself in political infighting and financial waste by the school district managers. School buildings are crumbling for lack of maintenance, and paychecks to teachers routinely bounce, while companies that supply school services are routinely rewarded with fat contracts. The district is $25 million in the red, and the school board has admitted that it doesn't know where that money went. Yet last night's vote to give a national company control of the board's spending barely passed, and board president Pastor Torin Sanders voted against it.

Pastor TORIN SANDERS (President, Orleans Parish School Board): Well, yes, the school system has been, I believe, a feeding ground for a whole lot of other interests other than people interested in the school system and the children. But I believe that the voters, when they elected us, they placed a trust in us and say that they want us to do the job as their representatives.

ROESGEN: But state lawmakers aren't so sure about that. The state is talking about taking complete control, and one of the school board members who voted for the financial takeover, Jimmy Fahrenholtz, says the board is so dysfunctional, it ought to let the state step in.

Mr. JIMMY FAHRENHOLTZ (Orleans Parish School Board): It looks like we're just in line for two, three, four, five more years of the same old, same old politics. Our kids can't take that anymore. If that means somebody else taking over the helm, then that's what I'm supposed to do. They're absolutely supposed to come in and take it over if that's the best thing for the kids.

ROESGEN: In fact, the state has already begun to take over in a piecemeal kind of way. Under state law, any school that doesn't meet academic standards four years in a row can be taken over and turned into a charter school, run by a private institution but open to students free of charge. That happened to one school last year, and now that school and its students are thriving. Four more failing schools will be turned into charter schools next fall. For NPR News, I'm Susan Roesgen in New Orleans.

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