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.