District 98 candidates tackle education at forum

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House 98 candidates Max Hayden Chiz, Kea Sherman, Marion “Penny” Freistadt, Carlos Zervigon, Ravi Sangisetty, Aimee Adatto Freeman and Evan Bergeron.

The seven Democratic candidates for Rep. Neil Abramson’s seat in the Louisiana Capitol representing House District 98 were mostly in agreement at a forum on Monday night, addressing issues such as Medicaid expansion, civil rights and criminal justice reform. The public education system in New Orleans, however, brought out some differences among the candidates.

Max Hayden Chiz, Kea Sherman, Marion “Penny” Freistadt, Carlos Zervigon, Ravi Sangisetty, Aimee Adatto Freeman and Evan Bergeron took the stage at the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church for a forum and debate held by the Carrollton Area Network, a coalition of neighborhood organizations along Carrollton Avenue.

See here for video of the entire forum.

The candidates tackled two questions on education: one on the city’s charter school system and another on improving education in Louisiana.

Although he was one of three candidates who raised his hand when asked whether the the charter system in New Orleans is a success, Ravi Sangisetty, a civil rights attorney, made an impassioned plea for more accountability in the system.

“That’s what I hear from the people in the district: We don’t know how these schools are being governed,” he said. “I would look at legislative measures that would create more transparency and accountability and build more trust in our school system and build more trust within the community for these operators. This is an experiment, and we need to be able to evaluate it on an ongoing basis.”

Another charter school supporter, Carlos Zervigon, the board president at Ben Franklin High and the founding board chair of Audubon Charter School, objected to this assertion.

“Under the old system, nobody was held accountable. Nobody,” Zervigon said. “People started going to jail.” A former Orleans Parish School Board member was sentenced in 2010 to 18 months in federal prison for accepting $140,000 in bribes.

Zervigon, a pubic school graduate who worked as a teacher in New Orleans before Katrina, said the system is actually more accountable now. “We are held accountable on our financial performance, on our operating performance,” he said. “When we see schools get in trouble on the news and they’re getting shut down, they’re being held accountable. They won’t be allowed to keep that school but give it to someone who can run it.”

He joined other candidates, however, in advocating for some changes in the current charter system. “There are problems we need to look at,” he said. “We need to revive community schools. We need to look at transportation issues. The superintendent should not have a super majority.”

Accountability in the system was a concern for most candidates. Max Hayden Chiz lamented that parents and other stakeholders don’t know who to call when they have a problem. “They don’t know who is responsible for what. They don’t know where to go to get changes made.” Chiz, an engineer, businessman, attorney and fencing champion, also said he could not fully support the charter system without more empirical evidence of its success.

Aimee Adatto Freeman, one of the three candidates who raised a hand when asked whether the charter system is a success, had some reservations about the system. “I believe it’s a success because the kids are so much better off than they were before Katrina,” Freeman said. “When I say success, it’s compared to where we were. I think we need to make improvements.”

The various charter operators need find a way to share services, she said, giving the example of Ellis Marsalis having to go to a confusing array of organizations to bring a music program to New Orleans children.

Evan Bergeron, an attorney, noted that charter schools are not a success for the single parent who has to work to work two jobs to get by. “Children are written off the best schools in the city because their parent can’t make it to the office between 10 and 12 on a Tuesday to turn in the application,” he said.

Bergeron also questioned the purpose of the Orleans Parish School Board if the charter boards are directing and determining policy for the schools.

The OPSB needs to remove the charters from underperforming schools said Kea Sherman, who worked as contractor after Katrina with the Texas Education Agency to support the transition of relocated New Orleans students into Texas public schools. “Many of the New Orleans public school students were two to three grade levels behind where they should be,” she said.

She supports the charter school experiment overall. “We’ve done something here that hasn’t been done anywhere else,” she said. “So there will be some challenges.”

Asked about the best way to improve public education in Louisiana, Sherman was among the candidates to speak in support of early childhood education, saying that programs like those at Kingsley House and Educare should be expanded statewide. Sherman, who works with those organizations, used as an example a young girl named Hayden who had been in school since she was 18 months old.

“When she was 4, she told me she wanted to be a scientist and study polymers. I had to Google that,” Sherman said. “That’s how smart these kids are when they have opportunities from an early age. It shouldn’t just be a few select children who have those opportunities. All children should have them. That’s what will transform our state.”

Freeman suggested investing the state’s surplus in early childhood education. “There’s research that shows the state will get a return on its investment when they invest in these kids,” she said.

Other candidates agreed on the importance of early childhood education but differed on how to fund it. Bergeron suggested reforming the Industrial Tax Exemption Program so more money could be directed into public education.

It wasn’t just early childhood education needs to be expanded or reformed. Marion “Penny” Freistadt, a retired microbiologist and climate activist, described her priorities in one emphatic word: “Science, science, science.” The Science Education Act, Jindal-era legislation that allows teachers to go outside the curriculum to counter theories of evolution and climate change, should be repealed, she said.

“We need to raise a generation of children who really understand science,” she said. Freistad also came out in support of age-appropriate sex education in schools, noting the high rate of sexually transmitted diseases among Louisiana teenagers.

Chiz said he wants more emphasis on teacher education. “We don’t reward our teachers for being nationally board certified,” he said. “There is no state-wide process to make our teachers good. You don’t magically graduate from school a great teacher. You can become a good teacher by going through the five-year national board certification process. It’s the teacher in that classroom who makes a difference, and we need to maximize what is going to that teacher.”

To improve education in New Orleans and the rest of the Louisiana, Zervigon said, we need to go beyond our schools and invest in effective anti-poverty programs.

“We are not going to improve until we change the condition of poverty,” he said. “The schools can do the best they can do, but if we don’t have affordable housing, if we stay locked in a cycle of poverty, then we will not see gains in our education system. Schools can only go so far. How do we produce great schools? We take on poverty, we take steps for a shared prosperity. It’s the only way we’re going to do it.”

Early voting begins Saturday and continues through Oct. 5. Election Day is Saturday, Oct. 19.

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