Meet the PAA founders: Karran Harper Royal

This profile is part of an ongoing series of portraits of key PAA members.

Karran Harper Royal’s articulate, impassioned advocacy for children has made her a familiar figure in her hometown of New Orleans and a sought-after speaker the national scene. In public meetings, government hearings, conference presentations, radio programs and television broadcasts, she cuts straight through the puffery that so often characterizes education “reform,” asking hard questions and describing the experiences of her city’s most vulnerable children in eloquent detail.

Karran’s activism began back in the 1990s, when her oldest son encountered difficulties in kindergarten, largely because he did not fit the expected student mold. She became his full-time advocate, and in the process learned to negotiate the complications of educational policies and bureaucracies at local, state and federal levels.

As her experience grew, she began to realize “that school wasn’t just broken for my son. A whole lot of little Khristopher Royals had not been getting what they needed.” So she expanded her advocacy to other children and families, working first for the city Mental Health department and then for the Pyramid Community Parent Resource Center, where she advises the families of children with disabilities.

Then came Hurricane Katrina. The floodwaters that devastated the city filled Karran’s Gentilly home with ten feet of contaminated water. Karran, whose family has lived in New Orleans for generations, came back to the city as soon as the floodwaters receded. “I’m a New Orleanian through and through,” she said. “We love where we live. There was just no question that we were coming back.” Karran, her husband and her sons stripped the house to the studs and built it back. Karran worked to rebuild her neighborhood school and joined several civic improvement groups.

As she labored to rebuild her home and her community, Karran accepted an invitation from the Louisiana Department of Education to serve on the Recovery School District Advisory Council. She had been concerned for years about the quality of public education in New Orleans, and hoped that the state’s control of schools would be a positive move. But she watched with growing dismay as the state used Katrina as an excuse to replace most New Orleans schools with charter schools.

Unlike U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who proclaimed Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans,” Karran quickly saw the flaws in the system, especially for children with disabilities. While traditional public schools were required to meet the needs of challenged students, most charter schools preferred to simply kick them out. In a city with few traditional public schools left, children who were expelled or pressured out of charters had only deeply troubled schools as options. And even in the charter sector, many schools were failing to deliver on the educational miracles they promised.

The all-charter system also destabilized neighborhoods, because families could not count on sending their children to a neighborhood school. Karran worked with families whose children were scattered among several different schools, because of the vagaries of charter lotteries. This lack of educational stability, she explained, introduced an “additional trauma” to already devastated neighborhoods and communities. “They’re destabilizing neighborhoods,” she lamented. “They’re destabilizing families.”

As well as helping individual families, Karran began to work with the Southern Poverty Law Center to document the problems with post-Katrina education in New Orleans. She connected with other Parents Across America founders after she spoke out against Arne Duncan’s Katrina statement. She was attracted to the idea of working to improve education policy on a national level because, as she pithily put it, “It’s from those policies that actions occur that impact children at school. If you have crappy policy, you’re going to have crappy action.” She believes that parents need to be organized to influence policy and its implementation at every level of our society.

Her own family serves as an example of the power of parent advocacy. Her oldest son, Khris, graduated from New Orleans schools and won a full scholarship at Berklee College of Music in Boston, which led to a successful career in music. Her younger son, Kendrick, currently attends a New Orleans public charter high school.

When Karran isn’t traveling to speaking engagements across the country or the world, she divides her days between the phone, the Internet and face-to-face meetings with parents and community members. She sees herself as an “information sharer” in the communities she works with, helping parents and community members to understand their rights and sharing with them strategies to participate effectively in their children’s education. “I can’t solve everybody’s problems,” she notes. “I want to give parents the information they need so they can solve their own problems and be strong advocates for their children.”

She is currently seeking to expand her political influence, by running for the District 3 seat on the Orleans Parish School Board. Go Karran!

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