Charter School Sector Out of Control

Last week when Ohio’s progressive Senator Sherrod Brown introduced (to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization bill being considered right now by the U.S. Senate) an amendment for federal regulation of charter schools, the Plain Dealer reported that he noted the irony that the very people who complain about waste, fraud, and abuse in government are now defending unregulated charter schools.

Whether or not Brown’s “Charter School Accountability Act of 2015” is enacted in this session of Congress, it is absolutely important that someone has finally introduced regulation of charter schools into the Congressional debate about education.  Just last month, a group of national organizations, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, wrote to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to remind him that the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General had, “raised concern about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter School Program,” and to demand a moratorium on new charter schools until regulation is improved.  The Office of Inspector General had reported in 2012 that neither the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, nor the state education agencies which disburse the majority of federal funds are equipped to keep adequate records or establish even minimal oversight of charter schools.  But according to the Alliance’s letter, nothing has been done to improve oversight.  And yet, according to Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post, “The department has given $1.7 billion in grants to charter schools since fiscal 2009.”  This blog covered the letter sent to Secretary Duncan from the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools here.

Nowhere has the experiment with charters been as extensive as New Orleans, where ten years ago after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the city, laws were swiftly changed to enable the state of Louisiana to declare the majority of New Orleans’ public schools “failing” and to seize the schools into the state-run Recovery School District that turned the majority of schools into privately managed charter schools. The Recovery School District in New Orleans has been bragged about in the press and in a mass of research literature produced by proponents of its “portfolio school reform” strategy.  And Louisiana’s creation of a “recovery district” or state appointed emergency manager has been copied by, for example, Michigan, Tennessee, Georgia, and very recently by Ohio for Youngstown’s schools, and Wisconsin for Milwaukee’s schools.

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) is an organization at the University of Colorado that has undertaken the project of reviewing research produced too often by think tanks with a bias.  On Monday, NEPC released a statement to raise concerns about the much-publicized research that has been produced to endorse the New Orleans charter experiment:  “This year marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina…. Following this tragedy, an extraordinary experiment in market-driven governance of public school was imposed on the city.  On this anniversary, advocacy groups and think tanks have issued numerous reports touting the claimed success of the New Orleans model, pointing to test scores that are higher than before Katrina, and championing its export to other disadvantaged communities.  Past claims put forward by these groups have rarely been supported by rigorous, objective research.  In fact, independent researchers have disputed these claims, arguing that the massive out-migration of students may have resulted in inflated scores for those remaining.  Other scholars have noted that the test standards were changed and the gains were exaggerated.”

NEPC suggests that whether or not test scores have significantly risen, there are other standards by which a school district must be evaluated.  NEPC endorses independent research that now documents: that the fragmented mass of charter schools have not always done a good job of providing services for students with special needs;  that low-income families’ school choice has been far more constrained by lack of transportation and after-school care while wealthier families have far less constrained choices; that some charter schools have been skimming the best students through tactics involving selective advertising and recruitment; and that the massive layoff of all the district’s teachers after the 2005 hurricane has left the district with far fewer African American teachers and fewer teachers with at least 10 years of experience.  NEPC adds: “Voters in New Orleans have lost control over the majority of their public schools, and have almost no say in whether they will get those schools back.”

A report released in May by the Center for Popular Democracy and the Coalition for Community Schools adds another serious worry.  Just as there has been lack of adequate oversight of charter schools at the federal level and across the states in general, Louisiana and the New Orleans Recovery School District have been ill-equipped to ensure adequate financial and academic oversight of New Orleans’ charter schools.  The report documents the size of the public’s financial investment in Louisiana Recovery District charter schools: “These schools have received substantial federal and state taxpayer support, totaling $71.8 million from federal Charter School Program grants and billions from Louisiana taxpayers.  In school year 2014/2015 Louisiana taxpayers will have poured over $831 million into charter schools.”

Oversight to protect taxpayers and students has not accompanied the massive investment of tax dollars, however. “The rapid growth and massive investment in charter schools has been accompanied by a dramatic underinvestment in oversight, leaving Louisiana’s students, parents, teachers and taxpayers at risk of academic failures and financial fraud.”  Here are the problems the Center for Popular Democracy identifies: “Oversight depends too heavily on self-reporting by charter schools or the reports of whistleblowers… The general auditing techniques used in charter school reports do not uncover fraud on their own…  Inadequate staffing prevents the thorough detection and elimination of fraud.”  “As the state has insufficiently resourced financial oversight, it has failed to create a structure that provides struggling schools and their students with a pathway to academic success… Since 2005, approximately $700 million in public tax dollars have been spent on charter schools that currently have not achieved a C or better on the state’s grading system.”  The report, recommends very basic reforms including that “underlying data comparators remain consistent from year to year to allow oversight officials and the public to accurately compare school performance,” that the state investigate whether there has been cheating by some schools to elevate their scores, and that the state audit school-reported data regularly to ensure it is accurate.

The National Education Policy Center warns this week that broader and more extensive research is needed for a comprehensive understanding of the meaning New Orleans’ school reform: “Ten years after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent reforms, there remain more questions than answers… (I)t is important to attend to the serious equity concerns that remain in the system, and to examine other outcomes, beyond test scores.  The preliminary evidence, from a combination of news reports and research studies, suggests that the New Orleans reforms disproportionately benefit more advantaged students, relative to the most at-risk and under-served students. It is also important to ask how much local, democratic oversight the public is willing, or should be willing, to trade for somewhat higher test scores.  In New Orleans, as well as in many other cities and states seeking to adopt a ‘recovery’ or ‘portfolio’ model, policymakers should ensure that the temporary turnaround measures do not permanently disenfranchise local actors.”

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The Sad History of State Takeovers of Schools and School Districts

On Wednesday afternoon the Georgia House of Representatives approved authorization for the state to create what Governor Nathan Deal calls, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “an ‘Opportunity School District’ with the power to fire principals, transfer teachers and change what students are learning at failing schools.” The state senate has already passed the bill, which, because it is set up as a state constitutional amendment, will be put before the voters in a November, 2016 referendum.

Here is the ballot language that will be presented next year to the people of Georgia: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve school performance?”

In a recent column in the Athens Banner Herald, Myra Blackmon explores a number of reasons state takeovers and so-called “recovery” or “opportunity” school districts don’t work.  She challenges Governor Deal’s claim that such a takeover is a moral imperative: “Why was it moral to pass a formula that purports to provide all the necessary funding for a Quality Basic Education, then fail to fund it?  For 30 years, neither Democrats nor Republicans have accepted that responsibility.  And our children have suffered.  The body of research showing the link between poverty and poor school performance grows every year.  The vast majority of children in the 141 schools ‘eligible’ for takeover by the state are poor.  Is it really taking the moral high road to ignore both the root causes and the effects of poverty on learning? How is a state takeover of schools full of poor children a moral duty, but dealing with the out-of-school issues that hinder achievement somehow not our job?”

Blackmon also attacks Deal’s plan because it will diminish democracy and because it is poorly conceived: “Indeed, how can anyone claim the moral high ground for a program that creates a new bureaucracy, usurps local control, duplicates existing programs, uses an unproven model, lacks any plans for actual teaching and learning, makes selection of schools for the ‘district’ arbitrary, limits resources to a tiny fraction of schools that need help, defies current best practices and replaces educators with bureaucrats?”

I hope advocates in Georgia can effectively use the year and a half before the election to educate voters about Blackmon’s very legitimate concerns.  And about one other serious worry:  you don’t ever want to insert an experimental and unproven program into your state constitution because if it doesn’t work, it is almost impossible to get rid of it.  Think about the tax freeze laws like Proposition 13 in California or House Bill 920 in Ohio.  Ask any parent about these obstacles to adequate school funding.  But they are in the state constitutions, and who is ever going to go for constitutional amendment that would raise taxes?

If it is implemented, Georgia’s state takeover plan will join a lot of other projects by which state legislatures have assumed the state can raise achievement when the local school district has struggled. I do not know of any case in which a state has intervened in a chronically low-scoring public school or school district when it has significantly raised the school’s or the school district’s aggregate test scores.  There are so many examples.

This blog has been following the ongoing fight over the schools in Newark, New Jersey between Mayor Ras Baraka and Newark’s elected state representatives on the one side and Governor Chris Christie and his appointed superintendent Cami Anderson on the other. (See here, and here.)  Newark’s schools have been under state control for twenty years. There are also the problems in Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder’s appointed financial emergency managers have been running the schools in Detroit and privatizing entire school districts in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park. In Detroit just two weeks ago, Governor Rick Snyder seized the state’s School Reform Office, which he had helped create, “from the Department of Education—which he does not oversee—to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, putting K-12 school accountability and restructuring directly under his control,” according to a report of the Detroit NewsThe Detroit Free Press reports some agreement across party lines that the state takeover of Detroit’s schools has not been working, but there are also questions about Snyder’s recent action: “The move was criticized immediately by a number of people, including the president of the State Board of Education, John Austin.  Austin said he shared the governor’s impatience with the pace of reform, saying ‘effective action is long over due, but moving the authority to a state agency with no educational abilities nor mandate will make it harder, not easier to improve educational outcomes for children in chronically failing schools.'” In 2012, the entire Muskegon Heights School District was turned over by its state-appointed emergency manager to Mosaica Education, a for profit charter management organization, but the deal fell apart a year ago when Mosaica lost money.  A new management company was sought for Muskegon Heights, and Mosaica has now been turned over to a bankruptcy receiver.

In Pennsylvania the state appointed School Reform Commission has been working with the legislature to slash spending in the School District of Philadelphia and expand the number of charter schools that are actively draining money out of traditional public schools. (See this blog’s coverage here and here.)  Just two days ago, it was reported that a new state takeover of the York, PA schools is being cancelled.  A television news report announced that, “The state Department of Education has confirmed that it has asked a judge to repeal its request for receivership.”  This development will please citizens of York, who had strongly protested the state takeover.  Discord is ongoing in Gary, Indiana and IndianapolisA senate bill proposed this week would allow the state to take over these financially strapped school districts. But in Indiana the state has already been authorized to intervene in low-scoring schools. The Chicago Tribune reports that the state board this week made the decision, opposed by education leaders in Gary, to close Gary’s Dunbar-Pulaski Academic and Career Academy, the district’s only middle school. “The closing was one of the options for the state board under a state accountability law when a school posts a failing grade for six straight years.”

The best known massive state takeover followed Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. With support from the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Louisiana legislature absorbed the majority of New Orleans’ schools—deemed failing by the state—into a Louisiana Recovery School District, which then began turning over schools to charter management companies to operate.  This blog reviews what happened in New Orleans hereJeff Bryant, who writes for the Educational Opportunity Network, describes how statistics have been manipulated in New Orleans by proponents of the state takeover to make the New Orleans Recovery School District look like a national model that should be replicated in other places. Bryant points out that one reason it appears that students’ academic achievement has improved is “that from 2012 to 2013, the state changed the formula and scale for measuring school performance, which artificially inflated RSD’s scores.”  Second, many of New Orleans’ charters have submitted inadequate data to be rated or are recently opened and not rated because they are new.  That means that boasts about overall school improvement do not include data from more than half of New Orleans’ current charter schools.  Third, scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have not risen significantly.  Fourth, an “official LDOE (Louisiana Department of Education) report now ranks the New Orleans Recovery District at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts in student performance.”  And finally the school district declined in enrollment in 2005 from 68,000 students to 32,000 students.  It has now climbed up to 42,000, but the group of children being tested is not the same as before the hurricane.  Those who brag about New Orleans’ transformation as a model ought to examine these facts.

In her critique of Georgia’s constitutional amendment for an Opportunity School District—now passed by both houses of Georgia’s legislature and ready to be voted on in November 2016—Myra Blackmon quotes Helen Ladd, Duke University professor of public policy and economics, who describes such governance changes as the one in Georgia as “misguided because they either deny or set to the side a basic body of evidence documenting that students from disadvantaged households on average perform less well in school than those from more advantaged families.  Because they do not directly address the educational challenges experienced by disadvantaged students, these policy strategies have contributed little—and are not likely to contribute much in the future—to raising overall student achievement or to reducing achievement and educational attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.  Moreover, such policies have the potential to do serious harm.”

A mass of evidence demonstrates that standardized test scores, in aggregate, reflect economic inequality, poverty, and segregation.  State takeovers of school districts and schools presume instead that shifts in school governance can raise test scores.  I have never observed the test score turnarounds that are promised.  The experts agree about what is blocking opportunity for so many of our society’s children at school and at home.  That conversation needs to seep into our political conversation.  What can we do to make that possible?

Another Top Piece by Jeff Bryant: Juking the Stats in New Orleans

In the summer of 2006, not quite a year after Hurricane Katrina, I traveled for a week to New Orleans.  At the Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ, I wrote an annual autumn publication for our churches on an issue of racial or economic justice in public schools that we hoped to highlight for them in that particular school year.  I planned to write the 2007 UCC Message on Public Education (released in fall 2006) on what had happened to the public schools in New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane—the subsequent layoff of all the teachers, and the beginning of the charter experiment seeded by huge grants from the U.S. Department of Education, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others.

With a good map and a rental car, I made my way to a mass of interviews I had set up with parents, former teachers, the former president of the teachers’ union, parent advocates, a civil rights attorney, a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, members of Beecher United Church of Christ, and public education advocates who had been identified to me.  My trip changed me.  New Orleans was still completely devastated, and the implications for the city’s poorest citizens were catastrophic.  I did not want to believe that in the United States, politicians would use a situation of massive devastation to undertake an education governance experiment on poor families and their children.

Most of the people I spoke with were still numb with shock.  Many were working during the day and returning at night to pull the walls apart in their houses—to “gut them out” as it was called—so they could begin rebuilding, but almost nobody had reached the rebuilding stage.  One elementary school I saw in New Orleans East remained windowless, with weeds so high they tangled wildly over the roof.  Some public schools that had not even been seriously damaged were shut down without being repaired. Fortier High School, an historic neighborhood high school, had been taken over by Tulane and other universities and turned into Lusher Charter High School, a place where the children of faculty at the area’s universities got preferred entry and most neighborhood adolescents were no longer welcome.  There were a lot of questions about the new Algiers Charter School District.  Few people could cut through all the deals going on to figure out what was really happening, but everybody felt they had lost the institutions they counted on to stabilize life for their children at a time when adults and children alike needed such institutions to cling to.

In the years since that summer I have done my best to keep up with ensuing changes in the schools of New Orleans, but the rhetoric and the manipulation of data by the Recovery School District (RSD) and the Louisiana state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education have made it incredibly difficult to get any sense at all really, apart from anecdotal evidence, of the ongoing reality for the children of New Orleans and their parents.

In a new piece published yesterday in the weekly newsletter of the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant describes what has become a serious issue not only in New Orleans but also in public education policy generally in the United States:  “Juking the stats is a practice now so ingrained in the way education solutions are posed to the public that examples are rampant.  But anyone who wants to have a genuinely honest discussion about education policy based on the real facts of the matter—and not statistical distortions achieved through gross manipulation and ‘policy speak’ that covers up realities on the ground—needs to constantly question what policy leaders and their scribes in the press are foisting off as ‘information.’  An especially egregious example of ‘juking the stats’ is the way 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.”

This summer, 2014, as the Recovery School District becomes almost entirely charterized without any traditional public neighborhood schools left this fall, there has been considerable press but—again—not much solid information.  Lots of promoters of school choice want everyone to believe New Orleans is the model for the rest of the country—a fully charterized mass of schools from which parents can choose. Finding and assembling hard information has, however, been virtually impossible.

In The Truth about the New Orleans School Model, Bryant  explains just how those in charge have been “juking the stats.”  Quite recently Bryant wrote a piece about New Orleans, only to have his publisher receive a letter from Zoey Reed, Executive Director of Communications and External Affairs at the New Orleans Recovery School District.  Ms. Reed demanded corrections to what she alleges were errors in the piece Bryant had published.

In yesterday’s article, Bryant publishes Ms. Reed’s demand for corrections followed by his own response to her.  His careful response to each of her demands comprises just the sort of analysis I’ve been looking for for a couple of years.  Bryant patches together data from several sources to confront the  lies being disseminated to create the myth that New Orleans has become a model for Detroit and Chicago and Milwaukee.

Bryant points out that one reason it appears that students’ academic achievement has improved is “that from 2012 to 2013 the state changed the formula and scale for measuring school performance, which artificially inflated RSD’s scores.”  Second, many of New Orleans’ charters have submitted inadequate data to be rated or are recently opened and not rated because they are new. That means that boasts about overall school improvement do not include data from more than half of New Orleans’ current charter schools.  Third, scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have not risen significantly.  Fourth, an “official LDOE (Louisiana Department of Education) report now ranks the New Orleans Recovery District at the 17th percentile among all Louisiana public school districts in student performance.”  And finally the school district declined in enrollment in 2005 from 68,000 students to 32,000 students.  It has now climbed up to 42,000, but the group of children being tested is not the same as before the hurricane.  Bryant also criticizes the application process for school choice, which he contends does not provide real choice for the majority of families.

It is a complicated story, but I urge you to read Bryant’s important piece.   If you like, skip the reprinting of the letter from Zoey Reed of the Recovery School District.  Then read Bryant’s response very carefully.  The goal is not for you to remember all the details about how data has been manipulated to make it appear that school achievement is soaring in New Orleans.  It is, however, important to recognize that creating a mass of charter schools—each reporting to its own board—and laying off all the experienced teachers in New Orleans has been neither a solution for the challenges being experienced by children living in concentrated poverty nor a quick fix for their schools.  Bryant has pulled together enough hard information about what’s happening in New Orleans to remind us all that we shouldn’t believe everything we are being told by the ideologues who are juking the stats.

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.”

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.”