MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
In New Orleans, charter schools -- which make up almost the entire school district -- aren't going anywhere anytime soon. However, due to ongoing clamorous community objection to them (and the way in which they are not accountable to school board oversight), some things may be changing. For the first time, the Louisiana legislature appears poised to return all New Orleans schools -- including about 75 percent of students who are taught in charter schools, administered independently by the state through the Recovery School District -- to the governance of the Orleans Parish School Board.
As the April 27 Baton Rouge Advocate reported:
The House Education Committee voted 11-2 to advance legislation that would transfer control of 52 public schools — all charters — run by the state Recovery School District for the past decade to the Orleans Parish School Board by 2018, 2019 at the latest.
Even with the move, charter schools would retain much of their autonomy.
That last qualification is a big one, because it appears that charter schools will be able to legally flout many directives from the parish's school board, according to the Advocate:
Parents and critics voiced concerns that charter school operators are being given too much control in the arrangement set up in the Senate legislation [which has already passed in the state].
Charter schools, often owned by companies and nonprofits but paid for with state money, operate autonomously on the theory that gives them more flexibility in setting curriculum and teaching techniques.
Cynics will argue that many charter schools want to operate as independently as possible to also maintain financial control that can benefit many private individuals and companies, not infrequently at the expense of students.
In 2014, we interviewed Kenyatta Collins, who was then a junior at Lake Area New Tech, a charter high school in New Orleans. Collins had just had a bold op-ed published in TIME magazine, in which she bluntly asked, "Is my high school, Lake Area New Tech, a prison or school?"
In her commentary, Collins questioned the objectives of the charter school takeover of New Orleans:
Students also respond differently depending on who is making the rules. Most of the administrators working in the schools I have attended are white and not from Louisiana. This makes me think back to the beginning of the United States when the Native Americans were being “Americanized” by white Europeans. The white people made the Native Americans convert to their religion, stop speaking their native language, stop wearing their traditional clothing, and change their names to “American”and “Christian” ones. They even had to start wearing their hair like the white people wore theirs. I see a similar process happening in schools with all of these stringent rules, which leads me to the question: Are we being trained for the professional world or for the white world? Or does being a professional mean being part of the white world?
Indeed, in an article last summer, The New York Times detailed "the myth of the New Orleans school makeover." In one section, it noted that former Secretary of the Department of Education Arne Duncan pondered whether Hurricane Katrina might be "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans."
Aside from the tastelessly inhumane idea that a devastating hurricane and accompanying loss of life were beneficial to the students of New Orleans, the consequences of the hurricane certainly did not lead to educational improvement. The Times went on to note the problems with the influx of charter schools in the Crescent City:
There is also growing evidence that the reforms have come at the expense of the city’s most disadvantaged children, who often disappear from school entirely and, thus, are no longer included in the data.
“We don’t want to replicate a lot of the things that took place to get here,” said Andre Perry, who was one of the few black charter-school leaders in the city. “There were some pretty nefarious things done in the pursuit of academic gain,” Mr. Perry acknowledged, including “suspensions, pushouts, skimming, counseling out, and not handling special needs kids well.”
In short, charter schools "taught to test," pushed the most "undesirable" students out of school -- and relied on many young, callow white teachers from the suburbs to educate primarily Black students with strong community traditions and ties.
Teach for America, founded by Princeton graduate Wendy Kopp in 1989, has been the cynosure of the charter school movement. In large part, it has recruited largely white well-off, well-intentioned recently-graduated college students to work for a pittance for charter schools, often for short periods in urban schools largely attended by Black and Latino students. Teach for America, with its simplistic naïve idealism, has basically served as a PR front for a vast industry of for-profit and nonprofit charter schools (often with high administrator salaries and financial entanglements, with service contracts often going to the businesses of people who serve on the schools' boards).
If there is a decline in enthusiasm about charter schools in New Orleans -- and perhaps elsewhere -- it may be revealed in an April 12 Washington Post article that states, "Teach for America applications fall again, diving 35 percent in three years." That may explain why Education Week reported in March that Teach for America is going through a second year of administrative staff layoffs:
It isn't the first year the controversial teacher-training organization has had layoffs. Some 200 or so employees were laid off last year. But the most recent round appears to have targeted some fairly senior executives, and to have blindsided quite a few staffers.
"You can't make educational progress with rotating teachers," Collins told BuzzFlash this week, speaking from Louisiana State University where she is now a freshman. "I personally believe all the schools in the parish should be run by the school board. Teachers go in and out now, and you don't have a chance to develop relations with them. Those teachers who used to work for the Parish school board were very familiar with our culture. Many of the short-term charter school teachers don't know the basics of the students who come from a low economic environment or different racial background."
As for former Education Secretary Duncan's statement implying that Hurricane Katrina helped New Orleans to start fresh with charter schools, Collins responded, "He wasn't there before Katrina, nor was he a parent. Our culture plays a huge background in our education in New Orleans."
Charter schools are the child of what author Thomas Frank calls the elite, self-styled "creative class," people who claim -- and perhaps believe -- that they are acting selflessly and virtuously, when in fact they are just creating more financial opportunities for each other.
Charter schools are as useless in altering centuries of structural racism as bringing in arsonists to try and put out a fire that has been burning since before this nation's creation. Like police brutality and harassment, such "creative" education is an indicator of institutional racial bias, not a solution.
Not to be republished without the permission of Truthout.