It was a classy affair with an attendance of perhaps fifty guests, and I was lucky enough to be granted an invitation to an exclusive screening of The Experiment at The New Orleans Museum of Art.
I walked into the place – a tad bit under-dressed – and filled my hands with an Abita Amber and a flat mushroom-filled pastry, which turned out to be delicious. In the buffet line, I met a well-dressed young man (about 10 or 11) wearing a (fake?) diamond-encrusted cross on a silver chain and questioning me as to whether I’d purchased a ticket.
When I said no, he seemed disappointed, saying, “Man, so they just giving tickets away to anybody?!” I asked if he had paid for one and he told me, no, he was in the movie. This kid turned out to be Gerald Carter, the precocious crowd-pleaser of the film.
I was afraid I would have no one to chat with during the reception, but fortunately I ran into Damekia Morgan, one of New Orleans’ social justice advocates. We chatted about our upcoming mission to reopen New Orleans Free School as a 300-student Type II Charter democratic school. I quiver with anticipation!
The film began promptly after the audience made way into the screening room and into the padded, reclining chairs. In the opening scene, we were introduced to a crime scene and a near-hysterical woman demanding to know if the dead child was hers.
Ben Lemoine, producer/director of The Experiment, gave us a glimpse into his life as a reporter. He told us how his job was to take a complex story and “package” it for consumption; how he became desensitized to the corpses lying in the street. This film is his way of reporting the story he never could before: where can we look for hope of curbing youth violence? He concludes that by giving every child a high quality education, regardless of race or class, we can offer them a way out of poverty and desperation.
The film followed 5 “at-risk” students and their families through their respective experiences during one school year. Interspersed with interviews from political and educational experts, Lemoine weaves a tale how the New Orleans educational experiment is basically a success.
We were allowed both sides of the charter debate, but the film is unambiguously pro-privatization. The KIPP schools, for example, were filmed as overflowing with delighted, uniformly productive children and professional high-powered teachers. One family benefited from vouchers, which allowed them to use public funding to attend a private parochial school.
Teacher unions were weighed upon heavily, and Diane Ravitch made a brief appearance while speaking at an AFT conference. The unions were directly accused of fighting against privatization for a singular reason: their addiction to the money and power that comes with control of the school system. It was also noted that charter schools rarely make union contracts, so they retain the ability to withhold tenure, and to fire teachers at will. This gives independent administrations more freedom to fire unqualified teachers and less bureaucracy when hiring new ones. Furthermore, the film’s participants all agree: “If these schools are successful, who cares who’s running them?”
Dr. Howard Fuller agrees. In the discussion that followed, he and the other two panelists – Ben Lemoine and Eddie Rispone – all made it clear that goals and results are more important than methods, effectively reducing the issue of social justice to standardized testing.
After a few questions about the importance of accountability and governance, I stood and offered a detour for the panel to consider. I wanted to know: What is the purpose of education and are we using appropriate language in our discussions of education? For example, the film featured verbiage such as “conveyor belt,” “investment,” “product” and comparing children to teeth with teachers as the dentist. So I asked, “Is the purpose of education to treat our students as widgets, to achieve 100% standardization so that each child is intellectually indistinguishable from every other?”
According to Dr. Fuller, the prime requisite for preparing young people to “engage in the practice of freedom” is being taught in the classroom how to “read, write, think, analyze and compute.” These skills would lead kids to become both socially and economically productive. He went on to say, “What happens is a lot of us who talking about all of this stuff, about, I’m worried about the kids treated so that they all become these cogs for the capitalist structure. Most of us who running that, we got college degrees and we got a job. So my thing is I want these kids to get a college degree and a job so they can pontificate about what it ought to be like.”
My thing is, I think these kids are perfectly capable of (and willing to) pontificate right now. Look at programs like Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools. This program – comprised of economically disadvantaged kids making changes to the school system – is founded on the knowledge that students want to learn, and they know what it ought to be like. Furthermore, the core curriculum tends to have a white bias with limited perspective, begging the question as to whether we are sacrificing cultural freedom for economic adequacy.
The panel and the film argued that the old system in New Orleans was corrupt and ineffective, and that you would have to be a fool or someone with a vested interest to disagree. This is no doubt true, but do we really have to choose between big government and big business? What about the community? Corporate networks, still trying to perfect industrial age education, are not the only ones who can open a charter school.
In summary, The Experiment was well produced, basically truthful (if a little one-sided), and presented an emotionally gripping exposé of the underserved black population in New Orleans. The debate over education reform at large is far from over, but Lemoine has shown us that for those suffering in poverty, corporate charter networks and voucher programs have made upward mobility for youth a priority in New Orleans, and that’s enough for families without better options.