The Charter School Flood
Although the overall recovery of New Orleans has been frustratingly slow, the restructuring of its schools happened nearly overnight. A public district formerly governed by an elected school board and its hired superintendent splintered into city charters, state charters, parish-run selective admission schools and state-run district schools. Parents struggling to make their way back to the city are often shocked to learn that the familiar school down the street is closed to their children because it is now either a charter or filled to capacity with children from across the city. Violence has erupted when students from different sections of the city have found themselves thrown into the same building. "In the two schools where I teach, there are now students from a dozen different schools," Randels says.
In January the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported the startling news that hundreds of children had been "wait-listed"--denied entrance to any school--because there were no seats available in any RSD buildings. Yet this number likely doesn't reflect the true number of young victims of the past school year. Lance Hill, executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University, told me about a conversation he had with a young woman who couldn't get into her former neighborhood school, which was now chartered. She was offered an RSD school, but because its location was traditionally hostile to kids from her part of town, she didn't feel it was a physically safe option. So she dropped out. When Hill met her, she was working at Wendy's. "The RSD is, without question, the worst school district in America," Hill says.
At a January rally at the state Capitol in Baton Rouge, public school students who organized as the Fyre Youth Squad spelled out the reasons. A light rain fell as students took turns at a microphone, telling stories of overcrowded classrooms and schools where the security-guard-to-student ratio was smaller than the teacher-to-student ratio.
"When John McDonogh Senior High School reopened after Hurricane Katrina, there were thirty-five security guards on staff and only twenty-three teachers," stated Joshua Short, an RSD student and Fyre Youth Squad member. "I felt like I was visiting one of my relatives in prison."
And at an anticrime march through downtown New Orleans earlier this year, students at L.E. Rabouin High School joined other protesters who carried pictures of friends and family members who were victims of the city's escalating violence. They were there to memorialize the school's popular bandleader, Dinerral Shavers, whose shooting death helped spark the rally. While a jazz musician led chants of "music in the schools," the Rabouin students spoke fondly of Shavers. They also lambasted their school's learning environment, which they said included still-frozen salami sandwiches for lunch. That's a familiar complaint from the past year, along with the lack of textbooks and an unchecked population of rats and roaches. "They run into the classroom and everyone cuts up," said one student.
The students' teacher Glenda McQueen brought them to the rally as part of a lesson on Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail." She didn't dispute their description of the school. "These kids are still recovering from the hurricane, trying to pull families together," she said. "It is like they are war-torn."
In New Orleans, the debate over the public schools centers on a question that's difficult to resolve: Which problems did the new school structure create, and which ones did it inherit? "There seems to be incredible amnesia in this community about what we had before," says Sarah Usdin, head of New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit teacher recruitment group. As has frequently been the case in New Orleans schools--which before Katrina cycled through superintendents at the rate of about one per year--leadership became a central issue. Following months of growing controversy over RSD school conditions and performance issues, the Times-Picayune called for RSD head Robin Jarvis to resign; she obliged in early May. The state tapped Philadelphia public schools superintendent Paul Vallas, whose first school year on the job will begin at the end of this summer.
The blossoming of new charter schools is frequently touted as the best hope for New Orleans. Still relatively young, charters were introduced in 1988 by American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker, who saw them as self-contained educational greenhouses for developing new ways of teaching. These innovations, he explained, could then be introduced districtwide. More recently, some advocates have argued that charters represent a superior way to run all public schools. Yet the results of national achievement tests have been inconclusive at best. Those wishing to forge ahead with a full-tilt charter revolution have also lacked a platform from which to launch their crusade. Then the floodwaters rose over New Orleans, sending some 65,000 public school students fleeing.
"This is the greenfield site that you never get in public education," says John Ayers, with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which contracted with the State of Louisiana to review groups that wished to open charter schools. Indeed, by the conclusion of the 2006-07 school year, more than 70 percent of the city's schools had become charter schools, far outpacing the rate in any other city.