New Orleans’ Charter School Transformation: the Very Definition of Injustice

When I look back, I can see that the year between September of 2005 and September of 2006 was when I realized deeply and in the most unforgettable way how powerful people can transform the systems we take for granted and in the process disempower the vulnerable.

In November of 2005, I couldn’t believe it when I learned—while bodies were still being discovered in the attics of New Orleans’ flooded and abandoned houses and while most people were staying with relatives in far away places or FEMA trailers in Houston—that the state of Louisiana had changed the law to seize the city’s public schools and fire all the teachers as part of a complicated school governance experiment driven by ideologues in the U.S. Department of Education, the state of Louisiana, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I had naively imagined that the goal would be to get families back to town as soon as possible and get children back in school under the secure guidance of the teachers those children knew.

Others were alarmed as well. Naomi Klein used the seizure and mass charterization of New Orleans’ public schools as the very definition of what she called “the shock doctrine”: “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)  Leigh Dingerson and the Center for Community Change published a short resource titled, Dismantling a Community. And later, in a book published by the Teachers College Press, Pedagogy, Policy, and the Privatized City, Kristen Buras shared the voices of New Orleans’ high school students describing what had been done to their schools.

In July of 2006, I was able to spend a week in New Orleans and to write about it.  I listened to all kinds of people including experienced teachers—replaced by Teach for America recruits—who had lost their profession and lost their livelihood. Tracie Washington, a civil rights attorney, told me she worried about fragmentation of services in the mass of charter schools: “The schools cannot be effectively compared and evaluated because there are too many types, too many curricula, too many tests, too many everything.”

I learned that a special exception had been made to the theory that charter schools ought to be non-selective.  New Orleans had been permitted to create charters with admissions tests and other selection screens—seizing the public, neighborhood Alcee Fortier High School, for example, and, with a big investment from Tulane University, converting it into selective Lusher Charter High School with an admissions preference for children whose parents taught at area universities. A former public school teacher told me: “Selective schools will show promise because they are selecting students who will show promise by testing well.”

Now, a dozen years after Hurricane Katrina, we have another opportunity to listen to the people in New Orleans describing what has happened to their schools.  Last fall, the national NAACP passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools, and the civil rights organization has been holding local hearings on that resolution. In April, the NAACP chose New Orleans, where the mass charter experiment was launched, for one of its hearings, and Bill Quigley, a long New Orleans resident, esteemed professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans, and Associate Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, listened as people told their stories.

Here is Bill Quigley’s report:  “The New Orleans hearing… featured outraged students, outraged parents, and dismayed community members reciting a litany of the problems created by the massive change to a charter school system. The single most powerful moment came when a group of students from Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools took the podium and detailed the many ways the system has failed and excluded them from participating in its transformation.”

Quigley summarizes: “(T)he NAACP heard that the charter system remains highly segregated by race and economic status. Students have significantly longer commutes to and from school. The percentage of African American teachers has declined dramatically leaving less experienced teachers who are less likely to be accredited and less likely to remain in the system. The costs of administration have gone up while resources for teaching have declined. Several special select schools have their own admission process which results in racially and economically different student bodies. The top administrator of one K-12 system of three schools is paid over a quarter of a million dollars. Students with disabilities have been ill served. Fraud and mismanagement, which certainly predated the conversion to charter schools, continue to occur. Thousand of students are in below-average schools. Students and parents feel disempowered and ignored by the system.”

Quigley emphasizes lingering bitterness about the elimination, in late autumn of 2005, of New Orleans’ entire teaching staff: “The first casualty of the abrupt change was the termination of the South’s largest local union and the firing of over 7000 mostly African American female teachers. Attorney Willie Zanders told the NAACP of the years of struggle for those teachers which, though initially successful, ended in bitter defeat years later. The city’s veteran black educators were replaced by younger, less qualified white teachers from Teach for America and Teach NOLA. The change to charters reduced the percentage of black teachers from 74 percent to 51 percent. There are now fewer experienced teachers, fewer accredited teachers, fewer local teachers, and more teachers who are likely to leave than before Katrina.”

In his brief and well-documented report, Quigley also summarizes some history: “One of the more dramatic and well-documented problems in the changeover to charters is the absence of services for students with disabilities. The Southern Poverty Law Center sued over disability violations in 2010… Children with disabilities had been denied enrollment altogether, forced to attend schools ill-equipped or lacking resources to serve them, and suspended without procedural protections.. After suit was filed it took an additional four years to set up a system to uphold the educational rights of students with disabilities. Now, there is a district-wide consent decree in place overseen by an Independent Monitor who reports to the Court. Yet, the disability problems remain. In 2017, a charter was rebuked for suspending a student who the school thought was depressed…  At another charter, since closed, the State identified egregious special education violations. Staff reused to screen students, tried to keep them from enrolling, put them in rooms with nothing to do, deprived students of their services, and faked records to cover it up.”

I urge you to read Bill Quigley’s fine report on the recent  NAACP hearing and the history of New Orleans’ charters over the past dozen years.  In every way Quigley’s essay reinforces what I heard when I visited New Orleans in 2006. I spoke with the Rev. Torin Sanders, a member of the Orleans Parish School Board, which had already lost control of all but a handful of the public schools to the state Recovery School District slated to manage the charter conversion. Sanders described what he thought was the meaning of the seizure of New Orleans’s public schools: “We need to keep the public in public education. Bureaucracy has come to connote ‘slow’ and ‘barrier.’ I am against that as well as out-dated rules. But you can have a system without those things. We have thrown out the system. The only people who can make it when there is no system are those who already have access to resources.”

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Corporate School Reform is Worldwide

In education, the ideology of free-marketeers—school choice in an education marketplace and privatization—has come to dominate policy not only in the United States but also across the world. Many people call this neoliberal school reform (connoting neo-libertarianism); some call it corporate school reform; others call it right-wing school reform; and some just consider it extreme, conservative thinking. In the U.S. we associate this thinking with conservatives—the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, and we know it has a lot to do with the economics of Milton Friedman, but in Europe, it is called “neoliberalism,” which is defined by a faith in privatization and globalized markets.

Naomi Klein helps sort out the confusion about terms: “(T)he ideology is a shape-shifter, forever changing its name and switching identities.  Friedman called himself a ‘liberal,’ but his U.S. followers, who associated liberals with high taxes and hippies, tended to identify as ‘conservatives,’ ‘classical economists,’ ‘free marketers,’ and, later, as believers in ‘Reaganomics’ or ‘laissez-faire.’  In most of the world, their orthodoxy is known as ‘neoliberalism,’ but it is often called ‘free trade’ or simply ‘globalization.’  Only since the mid-nineties has the intellectual movement, led by the right-wing think tanks with which Friedman had long associations—Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute—called itself ‘neoconservative,’ a world view that has harnessed the full force of the U.S. military machine in the service of a corporate agenda.  All these incarnations share a commitment to the policy trinity—the elimination of the public sphere, total liberation for corporations, and skeletal social spending….”  (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 14-15)

Klein’s book examines the operation world-wide of free market ideology by tracing examples of its operation when, as public institutions collapse after a natural catastrophe, free-marketeers step in to rescue the services (while making a profit): “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, p. 6)

Today’s poster child for shock doctrine education “reform” is Liberia’s idea of bringing in Bridge International Academies to manage its entire school system. (This blog has covered the privatization of Liberia’s schools here and here.) Reporting for Foreign Policy in Liberia’s Education Fire Sale, Ashoka Mukpo describes the corporatization of Liberia’s schools as a response to the nation’s education crisis—intensified by the Ebola epidemic: “(T)he deadly Ebola epidemic of 2014… shut down schools for a full academic year and forced many female students to abandon their studies to become breadwinners.  Today, the Ministry of Education estimates that 60 percent of primary school-age children aren’t enrolled in classes and as many as 5,000 teachers on the government payroll are ‘ghosts’—meaning that although they don’t show up for work, somebody is pocketing their paychecks…. But if the extent of the crisis is hard to dispute, the country’s plan to fix it has proven a lot more controversial. ‘After Ebola, we can’t go back to what was, because it wasn’t good enough. We have to think about something new,’ said George Werner, Liberia’s education minister, who took office last year… Werner stumbled upon the idea of a public-private partnership somewhat haphazardly. He was at a meeting in the United States last year when he was introduced to Shannon May, a co-founder of Bridge.  They got to talking, and a private philanthropist who supports Bridge offered to fly Werner to Kenya to observe Bridge’s schools there.” Bridge online academies operate with a scripted curriculum; even without any training in education, novice teachers can be assigned to large classes where all the students have programmed tablets.

Earlier this spring when Liberia’s plan to turn over its entire education system to Bridge International Academies was reported in the press, the outcry from Liberia’s own education experts, the Liberian diaspora, and experts at international organizations including the United Nations resulted in some modifications to the original plan. Now, according to Mukpo’s Foreign Policy report, instead of turning over the entire system to Bridge, “3 percent of primary schools… (will) be turned over to private companies during a pilot year beginning this fall. Fifty schools will be run by Bridge International Academies, an American for-profit company backed by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates that builds and runs low-cost schools primarily in East Africa.  As many as 70 more Liberian schools will be turned over to a host of other private operators.  If the pilot is deemed a success, it will be scaled up to at least 300 more schools in September 2017.  It could cover the country’s entire primary school system by 2020, according to the timeline set by the government.”

Mukpo examines the potential pitfalls of “shock doctrine” school privatization in Liberia: “First, the one-year pilot program looks rigged to succeed, meaning that the march toward additional privatization seems almost inevitable.  Bridge and the other providers will be allowed to retain only the most qualified teachers in the schools they manage while letting go those who don’t meet new standards set by the Ministry of Education…. Their replacements will be drawn from a pool of 1,100 USAID-trained teachers who were due to be assigned to public schools… Second, as the program scales, the pool of strong teachers will inevitably shrink.  It’s unclear whether Bridge and the other providers will then resort to hiring less qualified teachers or begin recruiting staff from outside the education sector altogether—people who would not be unionized like most current public school teachers…. The battle over the future of Liberian education is a microcosm of a much larger international debate about the role of for-profit companies in reforming public services.”

George Joseph presents another example of corporate, neoliberal school reform in an extraordinary new report for The Nation, Teach for America Has Gone Global, and Its Board Has Strange Ideas About What Poor Kids Need. Again corporate school reform is posed as a response to an education crisis: “According to the Right to Education Forum, in the 2013-14 school year, India had 568,000 teaching positions vacant, and only 22 percent of working teachers had ever received in-service training.  This massive shortage means that as of 2015, more than half of Indian public schools were unable to comply with the 2009 Right to Education Act’s mandatory class-size ratios (no more than 30 students to one teacher in elementary schools and 35 in secondary schools).  Further, a whopping 91,018 Indian public schools function with just one teacher.  Also, more than 50 percent of Indian public schools lack handwashing facilities; 15 percent lack girls’ toilets; and nearly 25 percent don’t have libraries.  As in many developing countries, these failures fuel the problem of teacher absenteeism in India.”

But no matter!  One solution with widespread support among the elite is Teach for India, modeled after Teach for America, and part of a worldwide network, Teach for All.  As Joseph quotes the rhetoric used by Indian and Pakistani  entrepreneurs to promote Teach for All programming, you will notice something familiar: “‘Your classrooms may be hot and lack electricity, and you may not have enough desks or books, but we know that a high-quality teacher can do more to change a student’s life than fans and desks,’ declared former Teach for Pakistan CEO Khadija S. Bakhtiar, in an address to the organization’s incoming class of 2013 fellows.  ‘Be the teacher and leave your students independent, empowered, and inquisitive.’  It is this sort of promise that makes Teach for All so enticing to sponsors like the World Bank, which have long pushed developing countries to slash and privatize their public health-care and education systems… By promising innovative classroom techniques and inspirational leadership, the Teach for All model seeks to transform tremendous material deficits into a problem of character…”

In a moving profile of an Indian public school teacher, Joseph contrasts her professional realities with the inflated rhetoric that elevates public hopes not for her but for her less experienced Teach for India recruit down the hall: “In Ms. D’s second-grade classroom the effects of the cuts in education spending by Prime Minister Narenda Modi (a close friend of Teach for India’s corporate patrons) and the failure of the Indian state to properly develop a public-school  system were immediately noticeable, even in India’s financial capital (Mumbai).  Ms. D’s class has 22 desks and 36 students—about the same as the Teach for India classroom down the hall.  But unlike the TFI fellows, she has never had a ‘co-teacher’ or ‘para-teacher’ to help with this load.  The class size, Ms. D readily tells me, is clearly in violation of the Right to Education Act—but she goes on, attempting to do right by her students… Given this lack of assistance, Ms. D teaches her students in eight-minute stints, leaving them to practice lessons with each other as she hunches over her desk, furiously completing the paperwork necessary to get the state-provided amenities to which the students are entitled… Ms. D isn’t only a teacher; she is also a janitor and a clerical worker… As many scholars have pointed out, Mumbai’s refusal to bolster its public-school system disproportionately affects the poorest of the poor, who can’t afford private school….”

Joseph also profiles Ashish Dhawan, one of India’s most successful private-equity players and a philanthropist who has been successfully promoting the privatization of education in Mumbai: “Dhawan explains that education reform will allow the corporate sector to ‘unlock the true potential’ of India’s human capital.  Informed by his success during the country’s IT/outsourcing boom, Dhawan claims that the Indian government needs to shift its focus from ‘inputs’ like infrastructure and classroom size and turn its attention to producing higher ‘outputs.’   To do this, he has advocated the increased use of standardized tests, the introduction of cheaper forms of instruction like MOOCs…, and increased private-sector participation in Indian education, freed from teacher-licensing and class-size regulations.”

In India as in the U.S., money buys the power to promote radical change in the institutions that shape a society: “Dhawan currently sits on the board or education committee of virtually every pro-privatization ‘reform’ group in India….  Following Dhawan’s plan, Mumbai opened up 1,174 government schools to private operators, offering them the opportunity to do everything from provide specific school services to run schools entirely with their own privately hired (and often inexperienced and non-unionized) teachers.  The drastic move, which was decided without any popular referendum, generated controversy in the city’s public sector, particularly with teachers’ unions and progressive parties.  Despite protests by thousands of people in 2012 and 2013, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation adopted the privatization proposal in January 2013, fueling concerns that similar efforts will now be underway across the country.”

Privatizing Education in Liberia: Mega-Philanthropy and 21st Century Colonialism

I recently did some research on a subject I knew little about, social entrepreneurship.  I went to the library and checked out David Bornstein’s book, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.  After all, a blurb on the cover from a NY Times review says it is “A bible in the field.”  Social entrepreneurship is often non-profit and is best known in a global sense—the Grameen Bank and all those NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are registered with the United Nations.  Bornstein explains that social entrepreneurs bring characteristics of business and competition into the way “the ‘noncommercial’ or ‘social’ business of society is structured. Around the world, this work has been dominated by centralized decision making and top-down, usually governmental, institutions. It has been managed a little like a planned economy.”(p. 276)

But, continues Bornstein, governments are often not ideal: “As in business, advancing new ideas and creating new models to attack problems require an entrepreneur’s single-minded vision and fierce determination, and lots of energy and time.  It is the kind of work that flourishes to the extent that society successfully harnesses and nurtures the wide-ranging talents of millions of citizens… One of the essential differences between a planned and a market economy is the role of competition.”(p. 276)  As Bornstein defines it, social entrepreneurship imports the values of business into what he calls the social sector.

Social innovation  and social entrepreneurship in the developing world is very often underwritten by the philanthropy of tech entrepreneurs from the United States — the billionaires who have made fortunes at Microsoft and Facebook and their giant philanthropies.  Sometimes the approach is not-for-profit, but sometimes, favoring competition, the mega-philanthropists underwrite for-profit businesses that contract to undertake services traditionally operated by government, with the idea that business is far more efficient.

Two weeks ago, this blog described the World Bank-endorsed takeover of the public schools in the African nation of Liberia by a for-profit, American company.  Here are the facts as reported by Main & Guardian Africa reporter, Christine Mungai: “In January, Liberia’s minister of education made a far-reaching announcement, which nevertheless has largely flown under the radar—until now, when a top UN official has come out strongly in opposition to it.  Liberian education Minister George Werner announced that the entire pre-primary education system would be outsourced to Bridge International Academies to manage.  The deal will see the government of Liberia pay over $64 million over a five-year period; public funding for education will support services subcontracted to the private, for-profit, US-based company. Under the public-private arrangement, the company will design curriculum materials from April to September 2017, while phase two will have the company roll out mass implementation over 5 years….”  Mungai adds: “It would possibly be the largest, and most ambitious privatisation attempt in Africa’s recent history, and the move has elicited mixed reactions, for good reason.”  The project is defended by its proponents because it will begin with a 50-school, one-year pilot.

Stanford University has a whole department devoted to the idea of social innovation and entrepreneurship, a department with a publication, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, which describes itself as informing and inspiring “millions of social change leaders from around the world and from all sectors of society—nonprofits, business, and government…  SSIR is published by the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.”  The publication’s mission statement?  “To advance, educate, and inspire the field of social innovation by seeking out, cultivating, and disseminating the best in research- and practice-based knowledge.”

The Stanford Social Innovation Review recently published a piece by Kevin Starr, director of the Mulago Foundation and the Rainer Arnhold Fellows Program, in defense of Liberia’s outsourcing of its public education system to Bridge International Academies.  Starr reports that the Mulago Foundation was one of the original investors in Bridge International Academies and is among its largest investors, and he defends the foundation’s investment.

Starr’s argument is so internally consistent and so carefully grounded in the frame of social innovation that it is almost convincing, but then one needs to consider the assumptions.  “Bridge is an African education company that runs schools in settings of poverty—mostly in Kenya, mostly in slums… Established in 2008 in Nairobi, Bridge is now the largest private provider of education in Africa.  They open up in a new community every three days and will reach 110,000 kids this year… The Liberian government and Bridge entered into discussions that led to a public-private partnership agreement for the 50-school pilot, which will be funded entirely by private philanthropy… This is not ‘privatization’ of education. These are government schools with government teachers and government oversight.  Bridge supplies the curriculum…  and management systems.  This is about helping the public system deliver.  Moreover, Bridge has readily agreed never to open a private school in Liberia.”  We see that Bridge International Academies is a large education company that runs schools in several African nations—a private company with which the Liberian government has decided to contract.  Technically, as Starr insists, this is a public venture: the government is paying a corporation to operate its schools.  And Bridge Academies is, as Starr describes it, an African company—whose investors are Americans.  The pilot is being launched by American philanthropy.

And, according to Starr, Bridge International Academies’ operation is to be judged by its business efficiency as measured by cost savings, with performance on standardized tests the sole yardstick of school performance.  Buildings, according to Starr, will be cheap; teachers will deliver “state-of-the-art, closely guided lessons and activities” from scripts on tablets; teachers will teach for 8 hours each day; and “management systems will be extremely sophisticated, especially with regard to teacher behavior.”  We learned recently that one reason the Bridge Academies’ model is affordable for Liberia is that class size is anticipated to be 40-50 students, although in some instances teachers may work with classes as large as 70 students.  Teachers are to be trained in five week sessions and will not be expected to have college degrees.

Starr addresses those who have criticized the American philanthropists who are underwriting this experiment in African education: “A number of critics have pointed out that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have invested privately in Bridge, as though there is something sinister afoot. Um, that’s called impact investing, and its generally considered a very good thing.  In the impact-investing world, Bridge is the poster child for high-impact enterprises that have gone big (there aren’t very many).  It’s worth noting, though, that with more than 200,000 kid-years of high-quality education so far, Bridge has yet to make a profit.  No matter how well it goes, the work in Liberia is not going to put them over the top.”

The collaboration between the Liberian government and Bridge Academies  is also being framed as a sort of Shock Doctrine response to a Liberian national catastrophe.  You may remember that Naomi Klein defined the shock doctrine: “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, p. 6)  The Voice of America just published a defense of the Liberian-Bridge Academies venture as the solution to a collapsed education system in Nigeria: “About 1.5 million children are enrolled in primary school in Liberia but the government said only 20 percent of the children complete 12th grade.  Years of civil war have also taken their toll on the nation’s education system.  In 2013, nearly 25,000 students failed the University of Liberia entrance exams.”  Liberian education minister George Werner is quoted defending the plan he has put into motion: “This is a small experiment for a big problem and we have to try it.  We’ve tried many things and they are not working… (O)ur children can no longer wait.  Let’s try this; it’s a pilot.  If it works, which I believe it will, fine.” Werner is said to approve the fifty-school, first year pilot because, “What is being tried in Liberia is a partnership with the best, vetted private providers to deliver management systems that can improve accountability and governance.”

So… they (the nameless doers of good behind this project) are not immoral profit-seekers, even though their school is for profit. And they and their company get to define high quality education for children living in poverty in Africa, even if classes of between 40 and 70 children whose teachers are delivering scripted, rote lessons from a tablet would not be suitable for their own children in California or Seattle.  We might want to examine philanthropy by wealthy tech entrepreneurs in the United States as perhaps a new form of colonialism—the 21st century variety.  The standard being promoted is to hire private providers with business skills—“management systems, accountability, governance.”  But if, at the end of the one-year pilot, Liberia expands the experiment nation-wide, the nation will have sacrificed the development of a cadre of well-educated teaching professionals who know how to work with children.