Race has become a very divisive topic in New Orleans over the past year. On December 31st, 2004, an African American college student died at the hands of some white bouncers at Razoo's Nightclub on Bourbon Street. Allegedly the altercation started when the student was stopped for a dress code "violation." Several subsequent studies revealed that on Bourbon Street a double standard applies to dress code and drink prices: whites were much less likely to be stopped by bouncers for dress code "violations" and they were charged less for drinks. Then the new District Attorney, Eddie Jordan, who is an African American, was found guilty of racial discrimination when he fired many white employees after taking office. Even our mayor, Ray Nagin, commented at length about racial divisions in April.
At the moment, the debate about race has centered on the fate of the Lusher schools. Lusher Elementary is a great school. My wife, Therese, used to teach there, though now she is a reading specialist at Audubon. But our daughter goes to school at Lusher, and our son will go there next year. But in the eyes of many in New Orleans we are elitists and contribute to a new form of racial discrimination and segregation. New Orleans public schools' students are about 98% African American. But at Lusher, African Americans make up only 50%, whereas whites are 40% and "other" are 10%. It’s not easy to get your kids in to Lusher. They take all children that live in their surrounding area, but it is not easy to buy real estate or afford the rents in their uptown neighborhood. Most of their students do not live in the Lusher neighborhood. It is a magnet school, and great test scores aren’t enough, as there is a long waiting list and even a “lottery” they use to decide who gets it. But honestly, it’s New Orleans, and nepotism and connections are the main criteria. Some of the richest families in town send their children to Lusher, politicians do likewise, and even the former school president Anthony Amato's children go there. Most of the faculty at my university send their children there.
Lusher tried last spring to open a high school, but there were some allegations that they didn’t go about doing this by the proper channels. The school board voted them down. Now the parents at Lusher are upset and are trying to change Lusher’s status so it would become a charter school, not having to take direction from the school board. Therese is in favor of Lusher becoming a charter school. She is not alone. Of the 948 votes cast by parents, 921 were in favor of becoming a charter. But I’m against it. I believe this move is motivated by retaliation. Lusher will get the high school they want in time, and I see parallels between becoming a charter with what happened to public education following desegregation. Here in the South, when the federal government ordered desegregation, whites fled to the suburbs and placed their children in private schools. The result is that New Orleans public schools are among the worst in the country. People have the attitude that their tax money should not be spent to educate these poor people who will be doing manual labor the rest of their lives. I wanted to fight the system. We live in the heart of New Orleans, in Mid-City, and purposely placed our children in public schools. We want to fix the problem and not run from it. I see this move to become a charter school as just another example of white people selfishly running away from a problem about race. But I'm not about to pull my children out of Lusher. I believe it is my job as a father to provide for them the best education they can get. But I do believe that if we could just do away with private and magnet schools that education in New Orleans would improve dramatically. Suddenly there would be many parents at all of the public schools who took a keen interest in education.
There are two great articles on the topic of Lusher. One is by local columnist Chris Rose, who discusses New Orleans' "culture of failure," and the other by professor Rodger Kamenetz.