Leslee Kulba

Despite Noise Post-Katrina Charter Schools Are Lifting Kids from Poverty


By Leslee Kulba –

Back in 2005, New Orleans schools ranked 67th out of 68 Louisiana districts. Louisiana, in turn, ranked 45th nationally in student achievement and 49th in student success indicators. Financially, the schools were described as being “on the verge of bankruptcy.” Capital improvements to schools 50-100 years old had been deferred, and some even lacked adequate plumbing for their lavatories. Then came Hurricane Katrina.

When evacuees returned, no school was left standing. The state responded by sending in its Recovery School District. The state-level organization had previously been created by the legislatures to assume control of districts that were failing in their missions, much like the emergency city manager program in Michigan.

The Orleans Parish School Board continued to operate 17 schools, while the RSD assumed control of 39. For whatever reasons, those left in charge chose not to reconstruct the teacher’s union, and not to hire back the former professional payrollees. Instead, they sought out management entities to oversee the schools. As a result, 12 of the OPSB schools and 17 of the RSD schools were chartered. Another board, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, runs a few more charter schools, putting a total of 57 percent of New Orleans public school students in charter schools.

Whether or not this is a victory or a boondoggle is widely disputed. Detractors will exclaim in horror one in three New Orleans schools are failing state standards. Rather than seeing the glass half empty, Leslie Jacobs, an advocate with the Bureau of Government Research, sees it twice full. Before Katrina hit, two in three New Orleans schools were failing. Other detractors complain that each year a handful of charter schools are shut down. A host of entrepreneurs were scrambling to fill niches and help kids get turned on to education. A few schools failed for lack of management expertise; others didn’t work out because they were handled remotely by national charter school conglomerates. To this, supporters laugh and say the system is working as it should. Through “creative destruction,” the market is eliminating inferior products to make room for better ones.

Among the seasoned businessmen who jumped at the opportunity to run charter schools is Ben Marcovitz. His SciAcademy is either hand-over-fist outstanding or merely connected with a stupendous advertising campaign. Marcovitz reportedly scours the country in search of talent to train his students. The sad story is told how he had first intended to run a high school, but he had to reinvent the curriculum the first week when he found freshman students did not even know enough phonics to read at a basic level of literacy.

According to the Cowen Institute, the change to charters has done the city good. The ACT scores of students from New Orleans schools are improving faster than state and national averages. The average New Orleans score was up 0.2 points, whereas the state only boosted performance 0.1 point, and no change was seen in the national average between the years 2011 and 2012. The distribution of scores was all over the board. RSD schools, by contrast, showed an 0.6 point increase. In absolute terms charter schools in the RSD outperformed their directly-run counterparts with average scores of 17.9 and 14.8, respectively; and the OPSB charters outperformed their directly-run counterparts 20.3 to 17.3.

Why Charter?

Charter schools, like vouchers, have long been promoted as a tool for giving parents options. They allow parents to vote with their children’s feet, and move kids out of wild zoos. As a classic example, a voucher program attempted years ago in Detroit was suspended after the crime-ridden schools were abandoned. Had the market been allowed to complete its course, new and better educational situations would have replaced the abandoned ones.

Public schools have been described as having a “take it or leave it” attitude. Charter schools, by contrast, not only give parents options, they allow parents to participate in school governance. Since charter schools aren’t bound by the same bureaucratic ties constraining the actions of normal public schools, it is believed they will innovate, and bend to cater to special needs. They can also specialize in certain niches, rather than broad-brushstroking all students.

Downsides include an inability to take advantage of the economies of scale available to large school districts. Transportation can be problematic, as each school buses kids past those riding buses to other charter schools. Detractors will complain that charter schools can be discriminatory by, for example, selecting as their niche high-achievement. Due to limited budgets and focused objectives, charter schools tend to exclude special needs populations. Charter schools also are not held to the same Freedom-of-Information-Act standards as their public counterparts.

Since the New Orleans charters were granted in an emergency situation, they don’t exactly measure up to the nationally-accepted definition. Governor Blanco waived portions of the state’s charter school requirements to get schools up and running faster. Faculty, parents, and community members were excluded from the chartering process, and not given seats on boards. That alone nullifies arguments for or against New Orleans schools on the basis that charter schools are supposed to excel because of direct parental involvement.

Dr. Raynard Sanders would discredit any success the schools are experiencing on the basis of exceptional filtering practices. “RSD charter schools still skim the most motivated public students in the RSD sector despite lacking the selective admission requirements OPSB and BESE charters have. They do so by using their enrollment practices, discipline and expulsion practices, transportation policies, location decisions, and marketing and recruitment efforts. These practices almost certainly work to increase pass rates in RSD charters compared to their traditional counterparts.”

To date, the charter schools continue to be a work in progress. Gary Richmond, of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, points out some bases must be covered in coming years, such as determining how the tax rate for charter schools should be set, who will manage bonds for new schools, and what arrangements should be made to cover special needs students who also want out of the mainstream public schools.

While it would be nice to dream that the proliferation of public schools in New Orleans is a hallmark achievement for the free market, it just ain’t so. The fact is, school chartering was heavily enabled by $20 million in emergency aid released by US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. In addition, the federal program, Teach for America, supplied the region with two waves of approximately 250 highly-trained teachers each.

What Reforms Should Work?

In a global economy, schools should prepare a workforce to compete with candidates coming from countries that place a much higher value on education. Other cultures demand discipline and high performance, and as a result, graduates of their schools make calculus look as easy as repeating the critiques of contestants on last night’s “American Idol.”

No self-respecting activist is content with the performance of public schools in the US. Dropout rates and scores on standardized academic tests fall below expectations. It may be argued that other countries allow kids who aren’t academically inclined to opt out of the public schools and pursue vocational interests. American schools hold kids prisoner whether they won’t use what they are learning, or already know what they’ll be “learning” for the next several years. Regardless, some inner-city school districts have, in the absence of discipline, remained madhouses and hotbeds of crime.

In his study of studies on North Carolina schools, Chairman and President of the John Locke Foundation John Hood found a few common threads in success stories. First of all, throwing money at the problem doesn’t work. North Carolina throws lots of money and still hangs out in the bottom quintile for many performance standards comparing the fifty states. Money must be intentionally directed, and those with authority to spend it must be held accountable for their decisions. More should be spent on students, in the classroom, than on luxuries for centralized bureaucrats attempting remote-control.

A wide open field for improving investment is teacher pay. Pay should be commensurate with output; that is, student performance, and not any level of credentialing or tenure. Furthermore, administrators should be allowed to make executive decisions, like determining when to release a teacher whose students are not growing academically. Teachers who choose to work with more difficult students can also be paid more.

Hood’s research has shown “many high-performing countries use tools such as . . . charter-like public schools to encourage innovation, parental choice, and competition.” America, by contrast, throws students into laboratories testing progressive fads while graduating students without basic reading and writing skills. The 2011 NEAP scored 37 percent of North Carolina 8th graders as proficient in math; 31 percent, as proficient in reading; and 26 percent, as proficient in science. A story is often repeated of the 2003 valedictorian of New Orleans’ Alcee Fortier High School. She got straight A’s while failing the state’s exit exam five times.

One plank of Hood’s “Carolina Manifesto for Growth” is to “encourage competition, innovation, and private investment in human capital by offering education tax relief and scholarships so North Carolina families and workers can obtain the education and training services of their choice.” Success stories from Louisiana’s decisions to grant scholarships to help low-income K-12 students attend the educational programs of their choice, and make teacher tenure performance-based, played into the empirical data Hood processed in deriving his recommendations, many of which Pat McCrory just signed into law.

Race Baiting –

Commentary on the failure of the New Orleans charter schools abounds. Some complaints are unabashed protectionist propaganda, originating with interests whose position of power and prestige is threatened by the innovation, such as teacher unions, and passed to loyal followers.

Among the worst of examples is scholarly work from the University of Utah. It claims the “laboratory for free-market fundamentalism and privatization” was inspired by an editorial in the <ITAL>Wall Street Journal</ITAL> by Milton Friedman. Friedman, author Karen A. Johnson claims, was a Keynesian progressive until the 1950s and 1960s, when desegregation became popular. Rock and roll also was becoming popular at the time, but that can’t be used to score a political point.

Actually, Friedman is on record criticizing public schools for restricting the best of educational opportunities to children of rich parents. “They make such individuals a ‘non-competing’ group sheltered from competition by the unavailability of the necessary capital to many individuals, among whom must be large numbers with equal ability,” he wrote. “The result is to perpetuate inequalities in wealth and status.” That quote goes on ad nauseum about the need to stop suppressing the talents of economically-disadvantaged students.

Johnson more or less equates conservatism with racism. She agrees with poet Kalamu ya Salaam that, since capitalists believe education should prepare today’s children for tomorrow’s jobs, the conservative post-Katrina school system is, “ground zero in the systemic exploitation of Black people in New Orleans,” training an underclass selected by race to “clean, cook, and serve.”

She claims elitist racists, like George W. Bush, following their dogma of letting no crisis go to waste, seized the disaster in Katrina’s wake to fire black teachers and replace them with inexperienced whites from Teach for America, dismantle the teacher’s union, and eliminate collective bargaining rights. Then, to make matters worse, the white, conservative elitists discipline their black students for minor infractions like tardiness or school uniform malfunctions, by “forcibly handcuffing children to furniture, brutally slamming them, banishing them from schools, and cutting short their education.” Punishment, including suspension and expulsion, displayed a racial bias “analogous to that found in the criminal justice system.”

Thank goodness the charter system allows parents the option of moving their students to preferable schools.

But then, news stories celebrating the success of the schools speak largely of disengaged parents. Employing the progressive trick of putting a face on the problem, articles supporting the greedy, racist public schools highlight children of color who have been accepted to the nation’s best colleges. Some of these kids are orphans or kids of drug-dependent parents who could care less about their achievements. Many come from homes broken by the disaster, and many go home at night to violent neighborhoods described as typical in New Orleans.

These kids tell of an old school system where they could cut class and hide out in the bathroom, skip school, or put their head on the desk all day. Those who choose to get with the new program express gratitude for being given a reason and an opportunity to make a difference in the world.

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