A Force in Education Reform

Robert Garda, Fanny Edith Winn Distinguished Professor of Law
Robert Garda, Fanny Edith Winn Distinguished Professor of Law

By Nathan C. Martin

Fanny Edith Winn Distinguished Professor of Law Robert Garda provides guidelines for reforming New Orleans’ tumultuous school system.

Before 2005, New Orleans schools were some of the nation’s worst. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a dizzying array of interested parties began a process that radically transformed the city’s school system. As Robert Garda, Fanny Edith Winn Distinguished Professor of Law, pointed out in a 2011 paper, the new reforms made Orleans Parish School District the only district in the United States with a majority of students attending charter schools. It also became one of the few school districts where the state has taken control of a vast majority of the schools under state accountability laws. New Orleans is now effectively the proving ground for modern education reform in the United States.

Garda’s paper, “The Politics of Education Reform: Lessons from New Orleans,” amounts to a map of the territory and a broad consideration of the factors that led education in New Orleans to its current state. It discusses “the political divides and hurdles that arise when choice and charter models are adopted,” and the way in which political battles shape education reform. Garda exposes political fault lines between key players and provides a window into how similar political forces will affect education reform elsewhere in the country, as school districts nationwide move toward the charter model.

“The Politics of Education Reform” largely steered clear of judgment concerning the charter school debate. But in two papers published in 2012, Garda asserted strong arguments, tackling the culture clash between the charter model and special education, and positing a novel critique and counterpoint to traditional approaches to school desegregation. Garda’s articles are timely, and have broad implications for schools in New Orleans and nationwide.


The charter school model embraces the notion of accountability, which uses outcomes—gauged by test scores—as the primary means to determine a school’s quality. Accountability was legally formalized in 2001 with Congress’ passing the No Child Left Behind act. Charter schools are autonomous entities, with little oversight from a central authority other than monitoring their students’ test scores. This is meant to make schools accountable for student achievement on a school-by-school basis, but as Garda points out, the culture of accountability is not always amenable to educating students with special needs.

“Special education has been the leader in showing us where the current structure of our school system fails,” Garda says. “Special education, more than anything else, requires unified governance and structural cohesion that [the New Orleans school system] completely lacks.”

A major lawsuit filed in 2010 against the Louisiana Department of Education on behalf of all New Orleans students with special needs brought special education to the legal forefront. Garda’s paper on the topic, “Culture Clash: Special Education in Charter Schools,” argues that New Orleans’ model of charter school use has led to violations of disabled students’ civil rights. Charter schools need their student body to achieve at a certain level in order to maintain their charters, which provides a strong disincentive to schools to enroll students with disabilities.

“In your normal, traditional school district, it doesn’t matter; you have to take these kids [with special needs],” Garda says. “Here, it’s a real problem, with all our charter schools being able to selectively admit or deny students. It’s just going to push more and more out of the charter schools and into traditionally run schools as sort of the last choice.”

Garda does not argue that accountability in itself is harmful to special education, and in fact often results in students with special needs receiving stronger curricula and becoming more integrated into normal classrooms. Because charter schools have the means to refuse enrollment of disabled students—thereby denying them access to equal education choices—the special education question becomes one that must be dealt with before New Orleans’ charter school model succeeds, and before it becomes a viable alternative to traditional school models around the country.


Garda’s second notable article of 2012 puts forth the cold, hard argument that true racial integration of schools will not take place until white parents understand its benefits for their children. Arguments in support of racial integration of schools, which still does not effectively exist in the United States 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, traditionally hinge on the assertion that segregation harms minority students. Garda uses what’s known as the “interest convergence theory,” which argues that the rights of the unempowered will never be advanced unless they converge with the rights of the empowered, to make his case. He concludes in his paper that “multiracial schools will not be created or sustained unless white parents believe it to be in their children’s best interest.”

“It is a jaded, horrible way to look at the world,” Garda says. “But it’s been proven to be a very realistic way to look at the world—we’re not doing these things because we want to help minorities or other unempowered groups. We do these things, in the end, because it helps us or helps our children.”

Garda argues that incentives for white parents to support integration are already in place. The world is becoming increasingly multicultural, and the job and social environments into which students will enter upon graduation require skill sets that white students do not learn in schools in which they need not engage with non-white students. Garda points to globalization of the business environment and the fact that the white population of the United States is projected to no longer maintain a majority by as soon as 2050. Whether white parents will act in such a way to bring about school integration remains to be seen, but to neglect to do so, writes Garda, is to their children’s peril:

“America’s youth will be entering an unprecedented era of heterogeneity during their lives. The ability to effectively operate in and navigate through this multiracial and multiethnic world and business environment requires cross-cultural communication and competence skills that their parents did not have to develop to succeed. Integrated schools, and only integrated schools, will equip children with these newly essential skills.”

Each of these articles targets intensely large and important topics, and they do so with a degree of deftness and consideration for the greater good that characterizes the type of scholars working in Loyola’s College of Law. Garda’s work in education law at such a pivotal moment in the evolution of New Orleans’ school system makes articles such as these crucial to the local conversation. But since New Orleans has become a social laboratory for education reform nationwide, his work has far wider consequences and demands the attention of parties across the country invested in the future of schools in the United States.

Experts Gather to Discuss Special Education Reform

The College of Law and Robert Garda, Fanny Edith Winn Distinguished Professor of Law, hosted “Special Education in a New Era of Reform,” a conference focusing on the impact of special education reforms on laws and practices, on campus March 1. A panel of experts from across the United States analyzed reform efforts and discussed topics including the impact of school vouchers on special education students, the availability and quality of special education in charter schools, identifying students with special needs, and achieving special education reform through class-action lawsuits.
Panelists included:

• Marcia Arceneaux, J.D., Ph.D., former Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and No Child Left Behind compliance attorney, Recovery School District
• John Borkowski, J.D., Washington D.C.-based Hogan Lovells law firm
• Ruth Colker, J.D., distinguished university professor and Heck Faust Memorial Chair in Constitutional Law, Ohio State University
• Eden Heilman, J.D. ’06, senior staff attorney, Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center
• Wendy Hensel, J.D., associate dean for research and faculty development and professor of law, Georgia State University
• Mark Weber, J.D., St. Vincent de Paul Professor of Law, DePaul University
• Paul Grossman, J.D., chief regional civil rights attorney, U.S. Department of Education (retired)

Nathan C. Martin is the marketing copywriter for Loyola’s Office of Publications and Creative Services.

View the complete spring 2013 issue of Loyola Lawyer.

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