Friday, November 18, 2011

Anger, and New Orleans

There isn't enough outrage at what is happening today in the struggle to change public education. Time for anger is here; it's been here for awhile.

When someone stands in front of my school board as they did this past Monday night and talks of the New Orleans school system transformation as a reason to support charter schools, the outrage stands out all over my face; imagine the face of a child who returns to NOLA to find that she is no longer welcome to attend her neighborhood school because it has become a specialized charter, admittance is selective and favoritism is granted to children of Tulane faculty?

In the area of education reform, or "Rhee-form" as I like to call it (after the gloriously hailed former superintendent of the Washington DC school system) you have to consider the source of your information. You have to develop and stay in contact with your own selected touchstones of wisdom and clarity in order to sort truth from nonsense. These are people whose hearts and minds you have come to trust over time and after much scrutiny. I have my own sources: Diane Ravitch, Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn, Lisa Nielson, Joe Bower, Ken Jones, Chris Lehman, Dan Pink, Ken Robinson, just to mention a very few of the people I depend upon for good sense.

Some might say this is the lazy way, a cowardly device used to maintain the us-vs.-them quality of the education debate. I should be reading and considering every possible proposal for fixing schools because it's not about partisanship -- it's all about the kids, right?

Actually, no. Well, yes, it's all about the kids, but no, I don't need to consider every point of view to figure out what I need to know about what serves them best. Life is too short, for one thing; for another, when you pay close attention to the national debate on education for long enough, you get to see quite clearly where the lines are drawn between what's good and what sucks among all the proposals and theories.

So when the words "charter school" are mentioned, red lights and sirens do go off in my head, and I go on the alert, ready to hear something that will stand dead in the way of good public education for all. In that regard, charters and their advocates never disappoint me.

Back to the guy who stood before my School Board and claimed New Orleans as a victory for the charter movement.

Before Katrina, the system of public education in NOLA was damaged beyond repair. There were a few specialized "magnet" schools that did really well, a small handful of charters, and a good system of private Catholic schools to which a fair portion of the city's middle class sent their kids. As a whole, corruption and decay had crippled the public education system.

You can argue that when Katrina came, it was an opportunity to take the disaster and make something come of it that was good. The possibility brings to mind the people of Reggio-Emilia, Italy who, after WWII left them in poverty and despair, made a decision to raise themselves up by creating a great preschool system. They sold a few German tanks that had been abandoned there, cleaned bricks from destroyed buildings and began to create the system that has become the shining star of early-childhood education.

Shinichi Suzuki did something similar; after he returned to Japan after WWII, he decided to help raise his country out of its own depths by developing a system of teaching violin to Japanese children using a method that is grounded in love and respect for all children and their families.

That's not how it worked in NOLA. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, when the city was largely abandoned, the common good of a population was ignored. The people of NOLA were nearly destroyed by the combination of forces of nature and the their neglect by the system that we all expect will be there to help when we need it most.

"The dismantling of the New Orleans Public Schools began before the waters receded," says Leigh Dingerson in his essay, Unlovely: How the Market is Failing the Children of New Orleans, from the book Keeping the Promise: The Debate over Charter Schools. Wheels were set in motion to have charters take over. Rules were set aside by legislation and waivers from the Governor. The decks were cleared. By 2007, NOLA had a system that where over half the public schools were charters, and the rest attended the state-run Recovery School District, AKA the Rest of the School District. Official documents and memos referred to the children not in one of the charters as "leftover."

The two systems are set up in competition with one another with the intention of showing how much better the charters performed. It is amazing that with the clear 45% tilt to the playing field, these claims are taken seriously at all.
  • According to New Orleans law professor Bill Quigley in a 2007 article, "Charter schools have been given tens of millions of dollars by the federal government in extra money, over and above their regular state and local money, to set up and operate." Not to mention millions in private money that supported the charters as well. None of this money was available for RSD schools.
  • In early 2007, an ad appeared on teacher recruitment sites asking for teachers with full certification for the Charter schools, while no certification was required of teachers assigned to RSD schools.
  • By the 2006-2007 school year, 58 percent of the schools in NOLA were charters. These charters either engaged in "creaming" which means unofficially but effectively weeding out undesirable students, or were allowed to be selective in their admissions process. All charter schools are able to limit enrollment, so while kids continued to return to NOLA the charter slots filled up; even though there were empty classrooms in charter schools the "leftover" kids went to RSD schools where classroom overcrowding was apparently acceptable.
  • According to Quigley, "In the first year of this experiment, the RSD had one security guard for every 37 students. Students at John McDonough High said their RSD school, which employed more guards than teachers, had a "prison atmosphere." In some schools, children spent long stretches of their school days in the gymnasium waiting for teachers to show up to teach them."
  • The charter system has a mixed-race enrollment. The RSD system is almost 100% African-American.

In her blog, Bridging Differences, on a November 9, 2010 post titled, What I Learned in New Orleans, Diane Ravitch wrote about an event she spoke at. "When a young woman (who was white) from the Cowen Institute at Tulane University defended the success of the charters in getting more students to pass AP exams, several people in the audience demanded to know why their non-charter schools were no longer allowed to offer AP courses. The young woman had no answer. Several people that night said: 'They stole our public schools, and they stole our democracy while we were out of town.'"

According to the most recent information I read, there seems to be plans to try to fix the situation, restore neighborhood schools, even out this lopsided system. Perhaps in the future I might write an update, but this blog post is about anger.

Someone stood in front of my school board and claimed New Orleans as a victory for charter schools. You tell me: did he intend to lie, was he misinformed, or did he just not care enough to get the real scoop? (It is interesting to note that he is a part-time principal of a small private school, and is anxious to get himself some public money of his own.) The rest of what he told us about charter schools in Maine carried about as much weight with me as his statement about New Orleans.

Now here is your homework. Read this article abut the tremendous gains made by New Orleans in the area of education. Here is the other side of the story. Feel free to come back with questions and challenges to my side.


  1. As a New Orleans resident, I am impressed with how well you grasp the downsides to what we've experienced here in New Orleans with the new system of schools. Let me thank you for taking the time to know the hard truths while others unquestioningly accept the glossy PR postcard version of reform's "success" in our city.

  2. Thank you so much. Your feedback means a lot to me.

    Since writing the post, I've learned a couple of things. One is that there was a solid grassroots reform effort underway before Katrina hit, but that manages to be overlooked in all the materials I read on the subject.

    The other is that I had assumed that with all the money, millions of public and private dollars, that were pumped into the charters, many of them are not doing badly. In fact, many are failing!

    It's horrifying. I can't imagine what it would be like to arrive home after losing everything to find out that you've lost your schools as well.

    Thanks again for commenting.