LA Returns Schools to Local New Orleans Board; But Schools Remain Charters, Still Unequal

You may have read that Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signed a law in mid-May to shut down the Louisiana Recovery School District and return schools to the locally elected school board. Like me, you may also have wondered what this will mean in a district where all the schools are now charter schools. Will the charter schools once again become traditional public schools? Not a chance. What has happened is that an extra layer of state intrusion into the affairs of the school district has been eliminated. The rest is not yet clear.

Here is how some people have tried to explain the transition, beginning with Emma Brown in the Washington Post: “Many charter school advocates describe it as an inevitable next step in the city’s bold education experiment, and one that could serve as a road map for other cities grappling with how to manage and coordinate a large number of charter schools… But some critics say it is a whitewash, written to appear as if local control over public education will be restored when the bill really leaves most of the power in the hands of the unelected boards of directors who run each of the city’s charter schools…  (T)he parish school board—which already runs a half-dozen schools and oversees more than a dozen charter schools—would be prohibited from interfering with school-level decisions about a litany of issues, including instruction, schedules, staffing, contracting and collective bargaining.  Instead, the district superintendent and board members would be responsible for reviewing schools’ performance and deciding whether they have met their targets and should be allowed to continue operating.”

Mercedes Schneider, a New Orleans teacher and blogger describes the transition a little more technically, but it still isn’t clear how it all will work: “The charters to be returned can petition the local school board and state board for permission to act as their own independent school board (‘local education agency,’ or LEA). If approved, then the charter acting as its LEA will be overseen directly by the state. The state board is to establish administrative procedures so that the state superintendent has the authority to revoke a charter’s LEA authority and return it to the local school board. The state board is to determine financial and other conditions that the LEA charters must meet in order to continue to receive public money. Any charters (whether choosing to act as their own LEAs or not) will continue to have control over issues such as curriculum, school calendar and hiring-firing teachers. However, it is now up to the state (for charters acing as their own LEAs) and the local district (for charters not acting as their own LEAs) to set fiscal and other conditions (i.e., ‘performance’) for the charter to continue to operate.”

A committee has begun meeting to work out the transition, which the new law says may take up to three years.

Just how all the rearrangement of governance will play out politically remains to be seen; but the one characteristic of charter schools in New Orleans that makes them different from charter schools anywhere else is quite clear. Charter schools, set up quietly and quickly right after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, were permitted to be selective. This particular feature is unlikely to change with the governance structure. Everywhere outside Louisiana, charter schools that receive public tax dollars, are, by law, not permitted to use explicit selection screens like entrance exams. But in New Orleans, the charters were set up in a way that reinforces economic class lines in a city with a long history of racial and economic segregation.

Within two months of the storm, Alcee Fortier High School, a neighborhood public high school, was converted to Lusher charter high school when the Orleans Parish School Board granted Tulane University a charter to manage the already selective Lusher Elementary and Middle School and convert the neighborhood Fortier public high school into Lusher charter high school.  At the time, Tulane granted $1.5 million to clean up and transform the old high school. A Tulane spokesperson explained: “The University is retaining its 7,000 full-time employees through the storm recovery, at an operational loss of $42,000 a day, to make sure that New Orleans’ largest private employer stays in business. Ensuring that these workers can send their children to a quality public school goes hand in hand with that effort.” (Susan Finch, “Some Orleans Schools to Open on West Bank,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, September 17, 2005)  Although high school students in the neighborhood could now apply to Lusher High School by taking an admissions test, the test was waived for children of the professional staff at Tulane, Loyola, Xavier, and Dillard Universities. (Steve Ritea, “Lusher Middle to Move into Fortier High,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, November 5, 2005)

Exclusive education in New Orleans’ charter schools continues over a decade later despite the changes in governance being negotiated around the elimination of the Recovery School District and the new role of the Orleans Parish School Board and all the charters that will be applying to operate as their own Local Education Agencies. Last week Danielle Dreilinger of the New Orleans Times-Picayune published an extraordinary and detailed report on the admissions policies at three of the city’s exclusive charter schools: Lusher, Audubon, and Lake Forest: “These are among the most popular and high-rated public (charter) schools in a city that has gained a national reputation for turning most schools over to charter operators, and for trying to help students who live with poverty and crime.  But few outsiders see the exclusive, privileged side of New Orleans public education. Along with setting academic requirements at some or all grades, and narrow admissions priorities, these three schools impose mind-numbingly complex application processes that test a parent’s savvy, access to transportation and ability to get off work.”  All three schools serve far fewer economically disadvantaged students than New Orleans’ schools’ overall average of 85 percent.  They all serve at least three times the number of gifted students than the city’s average and many fewer students with disabilities. In an all-charter city that has created a OneApp uniform application for the vast majority of the city’s charter schools, “Audubon, Lake Forest and Lusher are among the last seven schools that don’t use OneApp.” In addition to the requirement that students take entrance exams, other entrance screens at these schools include: requiring parents to attend meetings in person, requiring parents to fill out complicated questionnaires about their understanding of the school’s curriculum, requiring parents to hand-deliver applications during business hours, and requiring parents to submit portfolios of student work along with students’ attendance records at their former schools.

Lake Forest charter school, located in New Orleans East, is predominantly African American.  Dreilinger explains that its principal, Mardele Early, describes the school, “as the Spelman and the Morehouse of New Orleans.” But most of New Orleans’ selective charter schools are predominantly white. A research brief published last September by the Stanford (University) Center for Opportunity Policy in Education summarizes the stratification of New Orleans’ charter sector: “In order to analyze how the system distributes students across school types we created a… taxonomy of the different kinds of schools…. It is clear that the organization of schools in New Orleans is highly stratified: The school tiers sort students by race, income, and special education status, with the most advantaged students at the top and the least advantaged at the bottom.  Only the top two sub-tiers of schools within Tier 1 have any appreciable number of white and Asian students and any noticeable number of students who are non-poor. The top levels of Tier 1 schools have, proportionately, half as many special education students with disabilities (6%) as those in Tier 2 (12%), which have, in turn, fewer than half as many students with disabilities as those in Tier 3 (26%). Because schools at the top of the hierarchy largely choose their student body, few students actually have the option to attend these schools, while those schools at the bottom are assigned students who are not chosen elsewhere or who are pushed out of schools further up the hierarchy.”

Dreilinger describes how barriers to access work in New Orleans’ charter schools, including transportation: “Some Lusher and Franklin (another New Orleans charter high school) families who live in Algiers pay more than $900 per year to put their children on a private van.”  One parent explains: “It’s not a very easy system to apply to, and they don’t provide transportation (for students), so that limits the people they are going to attract.”  Dreilinger describes the understanding of a pre-school director whose center serves low income families: “Her parents’ perception—and she emphasized she didn’t know whether it was accurate—was that these schools functioned like a private school and chose who they wanted.”

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