Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Charter Schools and New Orleans

We're experimenting with our kids down here in post-Katrina New Orleans. Before Katrina, we had 120 public schools. They were pretty lousy for the most part. Now 56 public schools are open. The local school board runs five of them, the state runs 20, and 31 of these schools are run by private for-profit charter groups. Nine more private groups received charters and will open in the Fall of 2007, bringing the total to 40. People are watching this experiment closely, as the idea of outsourcing the education of our kids to a for-profit-company funded with public dollars is a new idea. Some, such as President Bush, want it to succeed, others want it to fail.

Personally I'm bipolar in regards to this issue. Before Katrina, when Lusher Elementary (the school where my children attend and my wife teaches) decided to become a charter school, I was against it, because I thought it was racist. I wrote about this just four days before Katrina. My world was certainly simpler then. Following Katrina, many politicians saw charter schools as the answer to get quality schools open. Several teachers and community activists claimed that charter schools were unproven academically, and they pitted schools against one another to compete for funds instead of cooperating. The Recovery School District, which was formed in 2003 to take over any Louisiana schools that were academically unacceptible, now was given an incredible amount of power. They, along with their supervisors at BESE, were charged with overseeing the process by which groups received charters and temporarily running the schools until they were chartered. During the special legislative session in the Fall of 2005, the RSD pledged that it "is committed to developing a strong model of parental and community collaboration" and "The RSD is committed to ensuring transparency regarding its processes and practices and accountability (at all levels)." But sadly, none of this has happened. At least in my community, there is no collaboration and no transparency. None. Several of us are trying to have a say in how our schools are operated, but we get no answers. This process has illustrated to me first hand how the country looks down on Lousiana, and how Louisiana looks down on New Orleans.

I was part of a group from the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization who tried to charter a school in our neighborhood. First in the Spring of 2006 we applied for Dibert Elementary. Our application, as were all applications, was reviewed by a company from Chicago called NACSA (National Association of Charter School Authorizers). The BESE board then acts as a rubber stamp, doing whatever NACSA recommends. We were given provisional approval by NACSA, and told we could have Dibert if we improved a few small things in our application. But then they opened Dibert as an RSD school, and they later told us our revised application was denied. We were shocked, and asked for the rubrics used to deny our application, and in reading them over it seemed they didn't understand how a neighborhood group like MCNO, which does so much, would govern a school. So I formed a separate non-profit corporation, called Mid-City Charter Schools, and our sole purpose was to govern a school in Mid-City. We applied again with a much stronger application. Our interview with NACSA went great. We had a fantastic board. But we recently heard that our application was denied again. We've heard through the grapevine that NACSA is only giving charters to groups who partner with national education companies that have political and financial ties to NACSA. We partnered with a local company called Education Design Management because they were great and local. They understand how the arts are such an important part to the culture of New Orleans. They had over 300 years of experience in education, and their education director had opened and run the first charter school in Louisiana. But only non-Louisiana education management companies get charters, and no neighborhood groups using Louisiana based management companies are trusted to run a school. It seems companies from Houston and Chicago know more about schools in Louisiana. And again, so many companies are profiting from Katrina, it's just they seem to be from other places.

So here we are now, with the RSD running the only public elementary school in our neighborhood, and not running it well. Even the mayor's office was unable to navigate the RSD bureacracy and hold a meeting at Dibert Elementary. I am going to start volunteering Friday afternoons at Dibert to see firsthand what is going on, and to try to have a better idea about how to help our children learn.

But there is a common perception that with charter schools, the people in the school neighborhood will have a louder voice in how the school is run. That has not been the case here in New Orleans.


Anonymous said...

See also:

Anonymous said...

Great post, Michael. I, too, was suspect of Lusher's charter application but I was more appalled by what I saw that you point out here--that only non-LA/local groups are getting the chance to run our schools. RSD is a mess and has little incentive I can see not to be such. Public education is becoming a series of islands of relative privilege, relative deprivation and serious deprivation. It breaks my heart and is wearing away my hope and optimism.

Michael Homan said...

G Bitch makes a good point about islands of privilege. It breaks my heart as well. We who live in these New Orleans neighborhoods need to find a way to have a voice in how our schools are run.

Your driver said...

I don't have kids in school, so I can afford to be above it all, but here's my suspicion of any privatization scheme: They're all about getting public funds into private hands. If anyone is actually served in the course of the wealth transfer, it's a coincidence.

I've spent most of the last 34 years working in public transit. Every transit privatization scheme I've ever come across has involved gutting service and slashing wages and benefits.

On the other hand, public schools are so awful, even in the mostly white working class area where I live, that it certainly seems as though anything would be an improvement.

Just a suggestion, while you're keeping an eye on the school, keep an eye on the money.

Leigh C. said...

Grrrr...This is disgusting.

The bias might be on outside organizations because the reasoning is that New Orleans couldn't take care of its own all these years, so why should they be expected to do it now?

It's a horrible way to make these decisions that affect our future. It's also highlighting yet another way in which there is no national confidence in the recovery effort unless the right kind of green is behind it.

Anonymous said...

Jon said: On the other hand, public schools are so awful, even in the mostly white working class area where I live, that it certainly seems as though anything would be an improvement.

I understand your sentiment but this is also a sentiment that gets us into deep trouble--if ANYthing is better, then chaos is okay, segregated systems are okay, closing all the public schools is okay, etc. Desperation needs to be managed before it leads to panicked decisions that are hard to repair or reverse. And that make things worse for the majority.

Leigh said: The bias might be on outside organizations because the reasoning is that New Orleans couldn't take care of its own all these years, so why should they be expected to do it now?

Those who assume "we" couldn't run our schools before weren't paying attention--Those we entrusted to (or assumed would) look out for the interests and futures of our children (and whether you have kids or not, if you care at all about your community or city, they are OUR kids) took advantage of the money, the chaos, the trust and cheated everyone. It doesn't seem fair to punish us all because the local equivalent of Halliburton fed the troops moldy food.

Ann said...

Perhaps you need to figure out who you have to pay to get your application approved.

bayoustjohndavid said...

Suspicious of Lusher's application? I know that the original application was before Katrina, but the final deal with Tulane was rushed through in September 2005. I didn't even know about it until I read about it on Ashley's blog. The last public meeting before it was ratified was held on the same day that people were first allowed back into my neighborhood.

As for the original application, there was an obvious element of racism, but there was also an understandable desire to gain some independence from the school board. But it's a lot easier to attract teachers to magnet schools, if it's correct that the charter schools are paying better, that's absurd,

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