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CABL survey not an accurate measure of community and public education

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By Angela W. Daliet

Recently, many local news organizations and folks in education have been hailing the findings of an Orleans Parish voter survey commissioned by Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL). The survey was conducted August 6 through 11 in which 500 people were queried. Reputable analysts like Clancy DuBois (“The Next Big Fight”), journalists from WWLTV, The Times-Picayune (“New poll shows N.O. voters like changes in city’s school system”) and most recently, Baton Rouge’s The Advocate (“Our Views: Public mood on schools”) have accepted the results of the survey, released in August, as a fairly accurate measure of the community’s stance on several important issues facing the city. However, in terms of the survey’s results on the topic of education, I find them ambiguous at best.

A press release issued by CABL on August 27 stated the poll revealed “strong support for charter schools in New Orleans” and established that most residents want more traditional public schools converted into charters and are concerned about returning schools to the local school board. CABL concluded from their survey results that, overwhelmingly, New Orleanians do not want to go back to the way things were, but rather “continue with the changes in education since Katrina.”

As I see it, a major problem with the poll’s results is that those surveyed do not adequately reflect active participants, or those invested, in our current local public education system. Who better to know if these educational reforms are actually working?

Here are a few striking contrasts regarding CABL’s survey respondent demographics and that of public school families:

•    Last year’s revised Census Report shows less than 25% of New Orleans adults have a college degree or beyond whereas 50% of the survey’s respondents have the equivalent.

•    According to US Census Bureau in 2008, the average adult becomes a parent at about 29 years-of-age and the average age for first-time grandparents is approximately 51 years. Almost half of those queried (47%) were over the age of 54, and only roughly 22% of respondents fall into the average national age range of parents with school age children.

•    Overwhelmingly, most local public school families (approximately 83% according to the Louisiana Department of Education) qualify for free or reduced lunch (meaning a family of 4 earning less than $20,000 per year); yet the majority of those surveyed (75%) reported household incomes well above this amount.

An adequate attempt to measure public opinion regarding the state of local public education must include the thoughts and Child At Schoolobservations of those most closely involved: public school parents, teachers, and students. If an umpire isn’t watching a game or even in the stadium, can he really say how the players are doing? These individuals have firsthand knowledge and experience regarding the benefits and effects of local educational reforms. Their input is crucial to not only truly identify the community’s stance on public education reforms, but, more importantly, determine if they are actually improving schools for all children in New Orleans.

I question what respondents based their answers upon without such inside information and understanding.

Another problem with CABL’s survey is its query regarding whether local schools should be returned to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) or remain with the Recovery School District (RSD).

No one would argue that the local public education landscape is ever-transforming and confusing. Even the most scholarly individuals often have difficulty grasping its complexities. Therefore, I find it difficult to assume that those surveyed actually know or understand the roles of the RSD or OPSB. If you are unable to distinguish the two organization’s functions, how can you actually evaluate their performance or determine if one is better than the other? And for that matter, why didn’t the survey offer an option to consider an alternative to both governing bodies? Other cities have Mayoral control, Community Councils, Appointed/Elected Boards, and other unconventional governance structures, so why not offer participants a “none of the above” option?

If I were a gambler, I would wager a higher bid that those polled couldn’t even explain the difference between a public charter and a traditional school.

It really bothers me that when asked if reforms are working, if anyone expresses their concerns, it is assumed these individuals want things the “old” way with mismanagement of funds, corruption, and generally not educating our children. Who in their right mind would want such a thing? But does that really mean that there isn’t another way? What about a “new” New Orleans way, driven by the people with local knowledge and experience? I say public schools are ours and we should have a say in what is happening inside them and to them.

My final observation is that those community members answering these important questions for the future of public education in New Orleans should not be led to an answer. The public education system has a long history of shading truths and leading reforms with their own agenda for the misinformed community. Unfortunately, well-publicized reports like CABL’s tend to reverberate and get repeated so often that they become widely accepted and ultimately inhibit deeper community inquiries.  By their own account, CABL took “a leading role in the state takeover of failing schools in New Orleans”, therefore it isn’t surprising that the questions were somewhat slanted to gain the answers sought.

Before we can improve schools in NOLA, we must have an honest and open conversation about transparency, accountability, sustainability, and the importance of authentic community engagement. Until each of us understands and accepts that we all have a role in transforming public education in New Orleans, we will continue to fail our children and our grandchildren.

Written by Angela W. Daliet

October 7, 2009 at 8:33 AM