State School Takeovers Steal Democracy, Ignore Poverty

The takeover of the public schools in New Orleans followed a natural catastrophe, the destruction of the city by Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levies.  The mass charterization of the city’s schools is said by its proponents to have improved education for the children who have returned, but the takeover remains controversial. What is less controversial is the impact of the imposition of the Recovery School District on democratic ownership and governance.  I will always remember the words of a New Orleans mother who cried out at a national meeting, “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy all while we were out of town.”

Politicians are rather cavalier about state school takeovers and the imposition of “achievement school districts” and “recovery school districts” when the families served by the schools are poor.  While New Jersey‘s governor Chris Christie would be unlikely to dismiss the role of the local school board in Montclair or Princeton, he didn’t hesitate to disdain the citizens of Newark when he proclaimed on television, “And I don’t care about the community criticism.  We run the schools in Newark, not them.”

Tennessee‘s Achievement School District, created to seize the lowest-scoring 5 percent of that state’s schools, has been managing schools in Nashville and Memphis for some years without stunning success, despite the rhetoric on its website that says the state takeover is designed to “bust barriers” and “catapult” the low scoring schools “straight into the top 25 percent.”  Chris Barbic ran the Tennessee Achievement School District from May 2011 until late July, when he resigned after test scores had hardly risen and none of the schools reached the top 25 percent.

And in Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder issued an executive order in mid-March to transfer the state body that has been overseeing the state takeover of low-scoring schools from the Department of Education to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, a department directly under Snyder’s control.  His executive order declared, “Despite not achieving satisfactory outcomes, the current structure has neither implemented the rigorous supports and processes needed to create positive academic outcomes nor placed (sic) any of the identified low achieving schools.” Snyder was condemning the state takeover initiative he himself created several years ago.

Poor and mediocre results from a variety of top-down state takeover arrangements have not discouraged ideologues who believe low test scores in extremely poor communities are the result of inefficiency that can be improved from on-high.

In January, the state of Arkansas took over the public schools in Little RockBarclay Key, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a pubic school parent writes: “(O)n January 28, 2015, the state board of education voted 5-4 to take over the entire LRSD (Little Rock School District) on the pretense that six of our forty-eight schools were in ‘academic distress.'”   Key adds that the four school board members voting for the state takeover have direct ties to “foundations that are purposefully undermining our public schools”—the Walton Family Foundation, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, and Arkansans for Education Reform.

In New York in April, according to Capital Confidential, “the legislature and governor created a new section of State Education Law pertaining to school receivership.  In June, the Board of Regents approved new regulations to implement the provisions of the law.”  The new state plan will directly affect 20 “persistently struggling” schools and eventually a total of 144 that have been identified as “struggling,”   The “persistently struggling” schools will be assigned to an “inside receiver,” most likely the superintendent of their school district, but the receiver will now have the capacity to lengthen the school day or school year, re-negotiate the union contract, change the budget and curriculum, or to convert the school to a charter or a full-service community school.  If schools do not improve within a year, they will be taken over by an outside receiver.

In early July, when Scott Walker finally signed the state budget in Wisconsin, tucked into the budget bill was the takeover of the Milwaukee School District.  Rob Peterson, founder of Rethinking Schools magazine and former president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, explains: “In Milwaukee, the state’s largest district and home to predominantly African-American and Latino students, the budget includes a ‘takeover’ plan that increases privatization and decreases oversight by the elected school board of the Milwaukee Public Schools.  The plan empowers the Milwaukee County Executive to appoint a ‘commissioner’ who will have parallel power with the MPS school board. The commissioner can privatize up to three of the city’s schools the first two years, and up to five every year thereafter.”

In Ohio at the end of June, without prior warning in the middle of a a committee hearing, Ohio Senator Peggy Lehner, chair of Ohio’s Senate Education Committee, introduced a 66 page amendment to establish state takeover of the Youngstown schools by an emergency manager—and takeover in the future of any school district with three years’ of “F” ratings—rendering the elected school board meaningless and abrogating the union contract.  She attached her amendment to a very popular bill designed to support expansion of the number of full-service, wraparound community learning centers in Ohio.  Within hours the bill had passed the Senate, moved to the House for concurrence, and been sent to the Governor for signature.

And in Georgia, Governor Nathan Deal considers his greatest achievement the establishment of a statewide “Opportunity School District,” designed, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, to “give the state the power to seize control of failing schools, convert them into charters or shut them down.”  In Georgia, unlike the other states named in this post, a majority of the voters must approve the measure in 2016 before it will take effect.  It has, however, already begun to affect the state’s education politics.  The designer of the Opportunity School District plan, Erin Hames—Governor Deal’s top education policy adviser—just resigned from her state position to sign a no-bid contract with the Atlanta Public Schools to advise the school district on how to avoid the very policy she created—the state takeover of 27 low-scoring schools.

Myra Blackmon, columnist for the Athens Banner-Herald, commented on this convoluted situation in Sunday’s paper: “Recently, we learned that Erin Hames, Gov. Nathan Deal’s education minion, is leaving her job.  In her new role, she’ll be paid $96,000 a year by the Atlanta Public School system to help it avoid becoming a victim of the Opportunity School District plan which Hames developed and rammed through the state legislature… But it gets worse.  Hames’ new consulting company filed its corporate papers on August 5, just four business days before the Atlanta Board of Education’s August 11 vote on her no-bid contract… This is how the self-selected ‘education reformers’ operate.  Their motive is profit and personal advancement.  They love the idea of schools run by private organizations….  It defies the values of local control in favor of centralized, easily managed power—all the while claiming ‘it’s for the children.'”

State school takeovers, whatever their form, fail to address what research has long confirmed is a primary factor that affects school achievement: poverty and especially concentrated neighborhood poverty.  Here is the analysis of Paul Jargowsky, a Rutgers University social scientist, about the demographic trend in the very type of school district being targeted with state takeover of low-scoring public schools: “Nationwide, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods and the population living in them has risen at an alarming pace… In the 2005-09 ACS data, before the financial crisis took hold, high-poverty census tracts increased by nearly one-third, to 3,310…. by 2009-13, an additional 1,100 tracts had poverty rates of 40 percent or more, bringing the total to 4,412. The overall increase in high-poverty census tracts since 2000 was 76 percent… The total population of these high-poverty neighborhoods has also grown… (S)ince the 2000 low, the number of persons living in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is 40 percent or more has grown by 91 percent… One of the primary concerns about high-poverty neighborhoods is the potential impact on child and adolescent development.  Indeed, William Julius Wilson stressed the lack of positive role models within the social milieu of urban ghettos.  High-poverty neighborhoods produce high-poverty schools, and both the school and neighborhood contexts affect student achievement.”

State school takeovers have no impact whatsoever on concentrated poverty.  They do steal democracy and local control, however, in poor communities.

Refuting the Myth of the New Orleans School Miracle: Children Lost after Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans almost ten years ago, as school was just beginning in the fall of 2005. Ever since, we have been trying to piece together the meaning of what happened to New Orleans’ children and to what was once the New Orleans Parish Schools—a school district that was abruptly dismantled in the late fall right after the hurricane and after a new law passed in Baton Rouge permitted the state to take over most of New Orleans’ schools.  A mass experiment in charterization was undertaken, launched with money from Margaret Spellings in the U.S. Department of Education with added help from philanthropists such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. All the teachers and school employees were laid off and later their positions eliminated.  Today virtually all of New Orleans’ schools have become privately managed charter schools in what became the Louisiana Recovery School District.

The dominant narrative about the New Orleans school transformation has come from annual reports released by the Cowen Institute at Tulane that pumped out rhetoric and data to prove that the charterization of New Orleans’ schools was a grand success.  Last year Jeff Bryant, writing for the Education Opportunity Network demonstrated serious problems with that spin in The Truth About The New Orleans School Reform Model:  “An especially egregious example of ‘juking the stats’ is the way the school administration in New Orleans—where, basically, the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina was used as an opportunity to summarily fire school teachers and turn over the majority of schools to privately managed charter school operators from out of town—is now being marketed to the entire country as a “solution” for public education everywhere.”  Bryant believes the data reports that have wowed school reformers presented an unrealistic portrayal of the impact of the school privatization on New Orleans’ children.

In the years since 2005, we’ve had glimpses into other points of view.

A year after Hurricane Katrina, in the fall of 2006, Leigh Dingerson, edited  Dismantling a Community—a powerful booklet of reflections from the still scattered students who had been part of Students at the Center, a high school writers’ workshop launched in 1996 at New Orleans’ McDonogh 35 High School and Frederick Douglass High School.  At the end of that volume Dingerson concludes, “Taking advantage of disarray and inertia by local officials, and the willingness of the federal government to heavily bankroll its alternative vision, powerful interests in education reform took the reins in New Orleans to recreate ‘public’ education under a market model.  As the new school year gets underway, little relating to the K-12 educational process in New Orleans is clear or easy  Students are still looking for places to hang their backpacks; parents are still crisscrossing the city trying to navigate a system that barely qualifies as ‘public,’ but for the millions of public dollars that have funded its creation.”

In 2007, Naomi Klein wrote about the New Orleans charter school experiment as the defining example of what she called The Shock Doctrine: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.  Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.  Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4… New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired… New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)

In 2010, Teachers College Press published Pedagogy, Policy, and the Privatized City: Stories of Dispossession and Defiance from New Orleans, which shared the perspective of former Students at the Center as they reflected back on their education in New Orleans and what happened in the months after Hurricane Katrina.  Maria Hernandez in a short essay, “Worse Than Those Six Days,” writes: “When Katrina hit New Orleans, I was two weeks into my senior year at Frederick Douglass High School.  My friends and I were frantically trying to keep our school from closing.  Douglass was one of the lowest ranking schools in the district, so the state, using its accountability plan, was trying to shut it down or take it over… Looking back on the last few days of August 2005, I still can’t believe we spent six days in the Superdome…. I’ve lost my home, my friends, and my school.  I’m always on the verge of tears.  But the worst part of it all is that the public officials—both elected and hired—who are supposed to be looking out for my education have failed me even worse than the ones who abandoned me in the Superdome.  My family and friends have food and water and the kindness of strangers… I’m in the same situation I was before Katrina: but now I’m fighting to reopen Douglass and other neighborhood high schools in New Orleans and to provide quality education for people like me.” (Pedagogy, Policy, and the Privatized City, pp. 85-86)

Even through the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the havoc that has rocked the lives of many of New Orleans’ children and adolescents, Jim Randels and Kalamu Ya Salaam managed to keep their writing workshop, Students at the Center, alive in several post-Katrina New Orleans high schools. It has been an institutional setting where students can feel safe and learn to express their sense of displacement powerfully in their writing.

The students who came back to Students at the Center were the lucky ones. This week Katy Reckdahl writing for The Hechinger Report shares a very different point of view in her story of young people who could not find an institutional setting to which they could anchor themselves after their families were displaced. In The Lost Children of Katrina (reprinted in The Atlantic) Reckdahl writes: “An untold number of kids—probably numbering in the tens of thousands missed weeks, months, even years of school after Katrina. Only now, a decade later, are advocates and researchers beginning to grasp the lasting effects of this post-storm duress… While some displaced children thrived in better schooling elsewhere, countless others had no time to put down new roots: Many low-income New Orleans evacuees spent several years after the storm in nomadic exile, moving among family members or in search of jobs or housing.”

“Early on, children’s advocates noted that serial moves and school absences were prevalent… While disasters are sometimes portrayed as events affecting everyone equally, children from more fragile families are more likely to be traumatized and to recover more slowly, said sociologist Lori Peek, who co-directs the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis at Colorado State University.  After observing 650 displaced New Orleans-area children, Peek and her collaborator Alice Fothergill found that poorer children were more likely to be exposed to Katrina’s floodwaters, resulting in ‘challenges concentrating in schools, higher anxiety levels and more behavioral problems.'” “Lower-income children were also more likely to be displaced far from home, to move often and to encounter bullying and discrimination, Peek and Fothergill found. ‘The children whose lives were most disrupted and whose social support system and family networks were shattered were left with few tools or resources to pick up the pieces,’ they concluded.”

Reckdahl’s new piece features the children whose families moved around from place to place all year after the hurricane.  She profiles the Lee family who moved to Houston where the mother kept her adolescent sons home from school because she feared violence.  “When the Lee family returned to New Orleans about a year after the storm, several schools had reopened, but much of the system remained in chaos.  Devante Lee, who came back first with an aunt, enrolled in a school where classes were held in temporary trailers run by high proportions of temporary teachers.  His campus sometimes shut down for the day without notice.  For thousands of New Orleans school children, these experiences were the rule, not the exception.”

Today Reckdahl reports a bigger than usual cohort of young adults seeking the GED, students, she surmises, who dropped out during the post-Katrina chaos. She also describes a number of community organizations that have sprung up to offer support and stability to young adults still trying to get their lives together.

One of the serious problems with the data-based reports that have created the myth of the charter school miracle in New Orleans is that the kind of young people described in Reckdahl’s new piece became invisible to data summaries by falling through the cracks.  Nobody knows how many students moved away and fit right in somewhere else and how many like Devante and Devine Lee, now in their mid-20s, dropped out and disappeared.  Their stories speak not only to the chaos as homes were flooded and neighborhoods broken up, but also to the destruction of the educational institutions—once anchors for young people—to which they could no longer automatically return once they came back to a city now designed around school choice.

As Reckdahl writes, “Those who did early Katrina research wonder what happened to the displaced children they met.  Thousands didn’t return, and the population of children in New Orleans dropped by 43 percent between 2000 and 2010.”

When Choosing Schools, Parents Often Pick Close-to-Home Over Test Scores

School choice is framed on the idea that if our society provides parents with enough choices, they will select the schools said to be excellent and their choices will drive up the academic quality of all schools because schools will compete to achieve excellence in order to be chosen by consumers.  The mark of excellence for which parents are assumed to compete these days is the school’s rating as defined by standardized test scores.

Last fall, however, some of the most prominent proponents of school choice as the driver of school quality began to express some skepticism.  Maybe marketplace school choice that has been so rapidly expanded across America’s big cities isn’t working the way it was supposed to.

First Robin Lake, executive director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington—creator of the “portfolio school reform model” that purports to deliver a good choice of school for every child in all neighborhoods—and that encourages city school districts to launch charter schools and expand school choice—went to Detroit. In early November, Lake and the Center for Reinventing Public Education published a scathing analysis in Education Next:  “No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

Then in mid-December Margaret Raymond, a fellow at the pro-market Hoover Institution and director of the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) shocked listeners at the Cleveland City Club by announcing that it has become pretty clear that markets don’t work in what she calls the education sector: “This is one of the big insights for me because I actually am a kind of pro-market kind of girl, but the marketplace doesn’t seem to work in a choice environment for education… I’ve studied competitive markets for much of my career… Education is the only industry/sector where the market mechanism just doesn’t work… I think it’s not helpful to expect parents to be the agents of quality assurance throughout the state.”

Now in January we have two new academic reports that suggest one primary reason why school choice does not seem to be driving up school quality as measured by standardized test scores. Parents are more discerning than anyone expected, and they are looking at other factors besides a school’s test score ranking when they choose a school for their children.  (One can, of course, explore a whole range of other possible reasons why competition doesn’t work—including whether schools can control the factors that drive test scores and whether uneven financial support for schools limits any real capacity for competition.)

In a major new study, the Consortium on Chicago School Research reports that when Chicago closed nearly 50 schools in 2013, children were assigned to a “welcoming” school, but families could make another choice if they wished.  Of the families who opted out of their assigned “welcoming” school, some parents chose schools with higher test scores, but many chose lower rated schools.  Why?  “Overwhelmingly, families that enrolled in lower-rated CPS schools did so because of proximity to home… Although these parents also talked about wanting schools that met their children’s academic needs, distance was prioritized over other considerations—oftentimes because of safety concerns.” “Access to transportation and the cost of transportation to and from welcoming schools was prohibitive for many of the families.”

The Chicago researchers list several other factors that influenced parents as well: “Some parents relied on their social networks for information…. A few families had prior experiences with school staff or students and either strongly considered or ruled out schools based on these prior experiences… Simply knowing about a school through a personal or family connection often put that school into consideration… Some children needed very specific kinds of supports or programs that were not offered at every school…. Families with multiple children had more complicated choice sets because these families often prioritized keeping their children together…. Some parents wanted their children to move to a more racially diverse school because they wanted their children to be exposed to multiple cultures.  Others ruled out some schools if they believed their child would be in the racial minority… Parents not only wanted their children to have a safe commute to and from school, but they also wanted them to feel safe while at school.”

The Chicago researchers conclude: “Academic quality for these families meant anything from schools having after-school programs, to having certain curricula and courses, small class sizes, and one-on-one attention from teachers in classes.  In addition, several parents stressed the importance of enrolling their children into schools that were not overcrowded… Many of these same parents expressed concern over larger class sizes at the welcoming schools and wondered whether their children would be able to get what they needed from their teachers.”

In another study released this month, Douglas Harris and Matthew Larsen at Tulane University examine the reasons parents choose schools in New Orleans, a district where school choice among charter schools has become almost universal because the school district has undergone massive charterization since the hurricane in the fall of 2005.   The school’s published academic rating is one of the factors parents consider but not the only factor: “Distance from home to school, academic performance of schools, and extracurricular activities predict school choices at all grade levels  Also, even after controlling for other school differences, families typically prefer schools that have ‘legacy’ names that were used pre-Katrina.  For families of children going to elementary schools, practical considerations such as distance and availability of extended school days and after-care seem especially important… For families with children going to high schools, extracurricular activities such as band and football seem especially important.” Factors that discouraged families from applying to particular schools include longer driving distances and a longer school year.

What these reports document is that parents are considering the needs of their children through the lens of a far more complex set of factors than mere test score rankings.  Parents are valuing and carefully considering a range of factors that will affect their family life and the needs of their children. One must wonder, considering that distance from home and transportation problems seem to be the biggest issues for parents in Chicago and New Orleans, whether our society needs to take another look at the importance of investing in and improving the neighborhood public schools that parents seem to value.

Broken Promises in New Orleans

There has been a lot of hype about the transformation to charter schools of almost all of the public schools in New Orleans.  The transformation began with the destruction of the city by Hurricane Katrina just as the school year had begun in 2005.  Powerful forces in Louisiana assisted by Margaret Spellings, then U.S. Secretary of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation made enormous grants; the state seized almost all of New Orleans’ public schools into a state-managed Recovery School District that permanently laid off all of New Orleans’ teachers; and a mass of charter operators came to the city to bid for building sites where they would participate in what was seen by many as a grand experiment.

As school opens this fall—nine years later, all of the remaining traditional public schools in what has become the Recovery School District are opening as charter schools, authorized and operated by different appointed boards.  The promoters of all this have made the numbers look as though the mass charterization has raised achievement, though this blog recently covered evidence that statistics can be made to show what those who present the data want the numbers to show.

What is clear is that many parents and others in the community have felt left out of a process which, although it features parental market choice, has sidestepped democracy and too often responded authentically neither to particular parents nor to the broader community.  A new series by Danielle Dreilinger in the New Orleans Times-Picayune here and here (and also reprinted at the Hechinger Report here and here) traces just how administrators in the New Orleans Recovery School District forgot about their promise to save Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School by opening Layfayette Academy, operated by the local Choice Foundation and chosen after a thoughtful process involving many community organizations in the tiny but very engaged Hollygrove neighborhood.

One school building among 82 New Orleans sites to be assigned a charter operator—an agreement signed in 2010 between the Choice Foundation and then Superintendent Paul Vallas—a change of staff in the Recovery School District—the signed agreement misplaced during a nine year “siting”process—and a Knowledge Is Power (KIPP) charter operator instead granted control of the new building soon to be completed and opened in Hollygrove.

Dreilinger explains: “After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians had to rebuild.  There were neighborhoods to reknit. There were schools to reinvent…. In Hollygrove, the two efforts aligned.  Here in a small and depressed quadrant bound by highways, fences, and overflowing drainage canals, neighbors worked with the state Recovery School District for four years to restore the Paul L. Dunbar Elementary campus, and to install the charter school, Lafayette Academy, that Hollygrove wanted.  The superintendent even signed off on the agreement, demonstrating that Recovery system officials could listen to a community and make a promise.  Four years later, neighbors say, they took it back.  They decided to install a KIPP school in the Dunbar campus, and Hollygrove is aghast.”

“But at the Recovery school system offices, Dunbar had melted into the background  It was a small campus in a small neighborhood, and school system officials had bigger arguments to settle, over buildings on St. Claude Avenue, on Esplanade Avenue and in Algiers.  The Recovery system had seized control of more than 100 schools from the Orleans Parish system after Hurricane Katrina, of which 70-plus were open, and its superintendency had changed hands twice in less than a year, from Vallas to White to Patrick Dobard.”

“We were promised that Choice Foundation would run the school and were excited because of our enduring relationship with them,” commented local minister, Rev. Kevin Brown, “a school that was responsive to the needs of the community and a community willing to serve the school.”

If you are wondering why the assignment of a  charter operator matters so much, you may want to take a look at a new piece posted at Jacobin, “No Excuses” in New Orleans.  One of the reporters, Beth Sondel  visited two of New Orleans’ so called “no excuses” charter schools, where she describes, “specific expectations about where students should put their hands, which direction they should turn their heads, how they should stand, and how they should sit—practices referred to at one school as SLANT (Sit up, Listen, Ask and Answer Questions, Nod, and Track the Speaker) [the expected regimen at all KIPP schools] and at the other as SPARK (Sit up straight, Pay attention, Ask and answer questions, React to show I’m following along, Keep tracking the speaker).  Students were kept silent or what teachers called ‘level zero,’ through most of the day.  Silence seemed to be especially important in the hallways.  At the sound of each bell… students were expected to line up at ‘level zero’ with their faces forward and hands behind their backs, and when given permission, step into the hallway and onto strips of black duct tape.  There they waited for the command of the administrator….”

Dreilinger in the Times-Picayune describes a very different culture described by Mickey Landry, director of the Choice Foundation, the operator of the now displaced Lafayette Academy.  Landry is quoted: “‘They make such a big deal out of community input, and then they ignore it,’ he said.  ‘We have been serving the families of Hollygrove since 2006.  They have chosen us to run that building, in partnership, as a neighborhood school, where the community can be involved… As far as we’re concerned we have a promise.'”

 

Registration Process a Fiasco: New Orleans Parents Struggle to Secure Places for their Children

Here is what the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington pronounces on its website as the heart of  “portfolio school reform”:

“A great school for every child in every neighborhood. The portfolio strategy gives families the freedom to attend their neighborhood schools or choose one that is the best fit for their child.”

New Orleans is one of the Center’s prime examples of the implementation of the “portfolio” theory it has been promoting.  Reorganized by the state after Hurricane Katrina—with financial support from the federal government, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and other philanthropies—the New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD) has progressively closed all of its traditional public neighborhood schools and replaced them with privately operated charter schools.  As of the fall of 2014, the district will now be fully charterized.  All parents and guardians must now select a prioritized short-list of schools from the array of options, file an application through what has, thankfully, finally become a centralized process, and wait to see where their child is accepted.

Except that the application process doesn’t seem to be working very well.  It seems in a lot of cases that parents are struggling to get their child into the school that seems to them “the best fit for their child.”  The mess that happened in the application process on Wednesday, as reported by Danielle Dreilinger for the Times-Picayune, raises an essential question about the theory of school choice: Is it possible to ensure that all children can select into a school that is the best fit for them when school placement is based on competition, a competition that will inevitably have winners and losers?

Dreilinger reports: “New Orleans public school enrollment faltered badly Wednesday when hundreds of parents arrived at the lone resource center to sign up their children—only to be turned away for lack of staff to help them.  It was an embarrassing fiasco for an enrollment process that has received national praise and aims to make life easier for families.”

Here is the history of the school application process in New Orleans in recent years, according to Dreilinger: “New Orleans has had a decentralized education system since after Hurricane Katrina… There are no default assignments to a neighborhood school; all families must choose where to go.  For the first several years, that meant a tiring scavenger hunt of dropping off applications at individual schools.  Starting in the winter of 2012, the Recovery School District began to centralize the process through OneApp…. Taking enrollment out of the hands of individual charter groups or schools is designed to ensure there’s no funny business and to lessen the work for parents.”

The process begins in the winter, and this year approximately 11,000 students applied and were placed in a school.  If families are unhappy with their child’s placement or if they have recently moved to the district and didn’t have a chance to participate last winter, families were invited on Wednesday to come to the summer parent center set up to help them search for their child’s school for this coming fall.  The school district expected 300 applicants on Wednesday, but the center was overwhelmed when over 800 parents showed up, many arriving before 6 AM.  The enrollment center opened at 7:30 AM, but closed at 11 AM when the small staff became overwhelmed with the number of applicants.

Bilingual counselors, who brought new immigrant parents unfamiliar with English to the enrollment center to help them with the application process, complained that their clients were not served despite the appointments that had been arranged by their translators.  Said one counselor, “I spoke to an RSD employee (who) assured me that when I brought my families, they would be able to support.  And now that we’re here, they’re telling us we need to turn around.”

A primary challenge with an “all-choice” system is that charter schools can each set enrollment caps, unlike traditional neighborhood schools that are required to accommodate all children living in a prescribed attendance area.  Families seeking a different placement than the one to which their children were assigned have few options by early July.  The spaces from which families new to the district can choose are by now extremely limited.

School districts that are organized traditionally with assigned attendance zones do not promise a perfect fit for every child.  The assumption has been that it is the responsibility of well-qualified teachers to learn to know the children and to address each child’s needs in the context of the needs of the other children who attend the school. And of course school districts are required to provide targeted services for children with defined special needs.  Traditional public schools are organized systematically to balance the needs of each particular child and family with services that secure the rights and address the needs of the children across the community.

School districts like New Orleans that have moved to universal school choice depend on the parents to drive school improvement through market selection of the schools they prefer.  Critics in New Orleans have been pointing out, however, that overall school improvement does not seem to have been the result of the plan based on school choice.  Among the critics is Mike Deshotels, a retired Louisiana high school science teacher who recently concluded: “The Louisiana Department of Education has just released the results of the state accountability testing called LEAP and ILEAP for the S;ring of 2014… The latest state testing results in this official LDOE report now rank the New Orleans Recovery District at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts in student performance.  By the state’s own calculations, this means that 83 percent of the state’s school districts provide their students a better opportunity for learning than do the schools in New Orleans that were taken over and converted into charter schools.”

New Orleans: Appeals Court Affirms that Teachers from Mass Firing Deserve Damages

“Before and After.  New Orleans has a new timeline.  A new zero point.  However, a natural event is by no means the sole cause for our new era.  To understand post-Katrina, you have to understand pre-Katrina.  Many folks in post-Katrina New Orleans, particularly in terms of public education, don’t follow this simple pre- and post-postulate.  They are salivating to start from scratch, to establish a new day and a new order, with nothing but disdain for the prezero…  In New Orleans we do have a new moment.  But it is not a moment out of time.  And it is not a story that only those in power will tell…  The before and the after.  The respect for elders and ancestors and cultural traditions.  Without this full picture, our public education, our culture, our souls cannot continue to grow.  Without imparting the knowledge of and action in history and struggle, we cannot teach our children well.”    —Jim Randels and Kalamu ya Salaam, teachers at Students at the Center, a student writing program at New Orleans’ Frederick Douglass High School and Eleanor McMain Secondary School. (Kristen Buras, Jim Randels, Kalamu Ya Salaam and Students at the Center, Pedagogy, Policy, and the Privatized City: Stories of Dispossession and Defiance from New Orleans, [New York: Teachers College Press, 2010], p. 15)

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in early September of 2005.  The story of what happened to public education in that city after the hurricane remains highly contested.

The Scott Cowen Institute at Tulane continues to publish data said to prove the schools—now well over 80 percent privately managed charters—have been transformed.

Mercedes Schneider, a Louisiana public school teacher and statistician, blogs regularly about how the numbers are being slanted to paint the charterization as an improvement.  Research on Reforms conducts similar research.

In the summer of 2006, researcher Leigh Dingerson described the devastation in Dismantling a Community. And in 2010, the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School concluded: “The ‘tiered’ system of public schools in the city of New Orleans sorts white students and a relatively small share of students of color into selective schools in the OPSB (Orleans Parish School Board) and BESE (Louisiana Board for Elementary and Secondary Education) sectors, while steering the majority of low-income students of color to high-poverty schools in the RSD (Recovery School District) sector… As a result of rules that put RSD traditional schools at a competitive disadvantage, schools in this sector are reduced to ‘schools of last resort.'”

Naomi Klein describes the charter school experiment in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as the defining example of what she calls “disaster capitalism”: “New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)

My own week-long visit to New Orleans in July of 2006 forced me to see realities I had previously been too naive to understand.  The physical wreckage remained in many parts of the city, but more troubling were the stories I heard from former teachers, parents, attorneys, church leaders and parent advocates in a series of conversations I had arranged in coffee shops and sometimes in people’s homes.  The stories were about a long history of white power and privilege and black dispossession, a history, according to many with whom I spoke, reproduced in the ten months since Hurricane Katrina had struck.  I describe my visit to New Orleans here.  I already knew about the $24 million in seed money (followed by other huge grants) from then U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and additional funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support the mass charterization of the city’s schools.  But during my visit to the city, I listened to those on whom the New Orleans school experiment was being imposed.

Fast forward to mid-January, 2014, eight years after the Louisiana’s legislature expanded the state Recovery School District to encompass the majority of New Orleans’ public schools, the Orleans Parish School Board fired all 7,000 of New Orleans’ teachers and the experiment began.  Last week the Times-Picayune reported that an appeals court has upheld an earlier decision of a trial court that the Orleans Parish School Board wrongly terminated the district’s teaching staff who were denied due process and were not considered for rehiring as the new school experiment took place.  The decision promises a financial settlement for all teachers who held tenure at the time they were summarily dismissed.

The case will surely be appealed again, and no one knows how the Orleans Parish School Board—left with only six schools after 2005-2006 when the rest were deemed “under-performing” and seized by the Recovery School District—could possibly pay the damages, which are expected to add up to $1.5 billion.  The appeals court makes the state responsible for only a small portion of the damages.  The appellate judges declare that tenured teachers should have been given priority when positions opened in the Recovery School District.  Instead positions were advertised nationally followed by vastly expanded hiring of new college graduates coming out of alternative certification programs.

The Times-Picayune reporter comments: “The decision validates the anger felt by former teachers who lost their jobs.  It says they should have been given top consideration for jobs in the new education system that emerged in New Orleans in the years after the storm.  Beyond the individual employees who were put out, the mass layoff has been a lingering source of pain for those who say the school system jobs were an important component in maintaining the city’s black middle class.  New Orleans’ teaching force has changed noticeably since then.  More young, white teachers have come from outside through groups such as Teach for America…  Though many schools have made a conscious effort to hire pre-Katrina teachers and New Orleans natives, eight years later, people still come to public meetings charging that outside teachers don’t understand the local students’ culture.”

The lesson I have personally learned during eight years of watching the vast experiment with New Orleans’ schools is that power and money can undermine institutions I believe should remain democratically governed, publicly regulated, free, universally available, and designed with a civic purpose.  I am relieved at least to see the appeals court affirm that public institutions are bound by the contracts they sign with their employees.  I hope a higher court will affirm this decision.

Will We Permit the Theft of Our Democracy?

This past Sunday afternoon, I had occasion to watch democracy at work.  As I describe here, I was part of the audience in Fort Wayne, Indiana as a panel including the president of the state senate committee on public education, a member of the state school board, and the president of the local Fort Wayne Board of Education discussed state education policy that dictates vouchers, an “A through F” rating system for public schools, and rapid charterization.

Although I am definitely not a political science expert, I could see that representatives of state agencies listened more carefully (or felt more threatened) when they were confronted by the president of the local school board than when the individual teachers and parents in the audience made comments and asked questions.  The president of the elected local school board carried the power of most everyone in the room and the majority of Fort Wayne’s voters, after all.

My recent experience in Fort Wayne reminded me of something I heard in New Orleans during the crisis after Hurricane Katrina, when a state Recovery School District was imposed on the Orleans Parish public school district.  The state seized all the schools with scores below a state-established benchmark, a standard set so high that the state was able to take over virtually all the public schools.  The Recovery School District began a mass experiment in charterization and laid off all of the public school teachers in New Orleans, effectively abrogating a legal contract with the United Teachers of New Orleans, AFT—breaking the union.  Without the power to do anything about it, parents profoundly cried out to name what had happened to them: “They stole our public schools and they stole our democracy, all while we were out of town.”

Today Governor Rick Scott and the legislature in Michigan have imposed state-appointed emergency managers in many of Michigan’s poorest and most segregated school districts—Highland Park, Muskegon Heights, Inkster, Buena Vista, and Detroit.  The emergency managers can nullify local union contracts, bring in private corporations to run entire school districts, fire teachers, radically escalate class size and even dissolve the school district and merge it with the one next door.  Neither the elected school boards, nor the superintendents who report to those school boards, nor the voters can impact what is happening.  In Pennsylvania the state-appointed School Reform Commission has been dictating to Superintendent Hite according to the wishes of those in Harrisburg who appointed the members of the Commission.  In states like Ohio and Indiana, where one political party is gerrymandered to control both the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature, one-party government is preventing democratic debate at the state level.

And in a number of large cities, mayoral governance—with the mayor’s appointed school board—has replaced the democratic form of school governance represented by an elected board of education.  We have watched as rubber-stamp school board members, serving at the pleasure of the mayor who appointed them, vote in lock-step with the mayor’s wishes.  Examples are New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, Oakland, and Providence,

Democracy as represented in local school boards is a stable form of school governance.  Instead today’s school reformers prefer disruptive change of the sort deliberative local school boards are less likely to approve—portfolio school reform, school closure, and privatization.  In her new book, Reign of Error, education historian Diane Ravitch discusses the importance of democracy as represented through elected boards of education:

“The reformers are correct when they say that elected school boards are an obstacle to radical change. They move slowly. They argue.  They listen to different points of view. They make mistakes. They are not bold and transformative. They prefer incremental change.  In short, they are a democratic forum.  They are a check and balance against concentrated power in one person or one agency… Authoritarian governments can move decisively…  They are able to make change without pondering or taking opposing views into account…  There is an arrogance to unchecked power.  There is no mechanism to vet its ideas, so it plunges forward, sometimes into disastrous schemes…  No reform idea is so compelling and so urgent that it requires the suspension of democracy.” (Reign of Error, pp. 287-288)

New Orleans Charter Experiment Leaves Behind Poorest and Disabled

The Great Charter Tryout: Are New Orleans’s Schools a Model for the Nation—or a Cautionary Tale? asks reporter Andrea Gabor. You are likely to remember that after Hurricane Katrina deluged the city on Labor Day weekend of 2005, the schools in New Orleans underwent a city-wide charter school experiment with encouragement and funding from Margaret Spellings, who was then U.S. Secretary of Education, and huge grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Naomi Klein described the mass layoff of New Orleans’ public school teachers and the subsequent rush to charterize the district as the defining metaphor for her 2007 best seller The Shock Doctrine:  “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision… I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'”

One could wonder how it would all work out in the years immediately following the hurricane, but now, eight years after the New Orleans charter school experiment began, Gabor helps us take a hard look at the evidence: “Figuring out what has taken place in the New Orleans schools is not just a matter of interest to local residents.  From cities like New York to towns like Muskegon Heights, Michigan, market-style reforms have been widely touted as the answer to America’s educational woes… New Orleans tells us a lot about what these reforms look like in practice.  And the current reality of the city’s schools should be enough to give pause to even the most passionate charter supporters.”

Gabor reports that the mass layoff of local teachers in 2005 has led to importing of many young, short-termers.  In 2011, 42 percent of teachers in the Recovery School District had less than two years of experience—22 percent, one year or less in the classroom.  “In part to help with this lack of experience, charter schools train teachers in highly regimented routines that help them keep control of their classrooms.” Describing Sci Academy, one of New Orleans’ most successful charters, Gabor reports: “Each morning at 8 AM the teachers, almost all white and in their 20s, gather for a rousing thigh-slapping, hand-clapping, rap-chanting staff revival meeting, the beginning of what will be, for most, a 14-16-hour workday.” At Sci Academy, students are expected to “SPARK check!” on command.  “The acronym stands for sit straight; pencil to paper (or place hands folded in front); ask and answer questions; respect; and keep tracking the speaker.” Anthony Recasner, a child psychologist who was deeply involved with another of New Orleans charters before he left to manage a local child advocacy organization, now questions the behaviorist culture the competitive charters have created: “The typical charter school in New Orleans is not sustainable for the adults, not fun for kids… Is that really what we want for the nation’s poor children?”

Gabor critiques Louisiana’s accountability system, which focuses relentlessly on the college matriculation rate of each high school’s graduating class as the one factor that matters most in a high school’s state ranking.  What about the children who barely get accepted at a college?  Although many are likely to drop out of college, they will have accrued college loans they’ll never be able to pay off.

Will students who struggle and students with special needs get enough attention when the primary focus of many schools is graduating kids who are accepted at a college?  The high school dropout–pushout rates are telling. “Indeed, behind Sci Academy’s impressive college-acceptance rate were some troubling numbers.  The school’s first graduating class was 37 percent smaller than the same class had been in the ninth grade—even though some students came to the school after freshman year and filled seats left vacant by departing students.  The attrition rate has improved; the class of 2013 was 28 percent smaller than it had been in the ninth grade.”

Gabor reflects: “In the 1990s, the city’s first charter school, New Orleans Charter Middle School, was built on a progressive curriculum that used experiential projects and electives… to foster a love of learning…  The progressive roots of the charter movement have been swamped by the new realities of a competitive charter marketplace.”