The Charter School Flood
The Bush Administration has been trumpeting the new schools as a New Orleans success story. In fact, charters were the Administration's second plan for New Orleans students. Immediately after the flood, Bush attempted a $500 million voucher program to allow displaced children to enroll in private and religious schools across the country. Critics saw the move as an attempt to exploit the disaster to finally enact vouchers, a longstanding Bush goal, and the initiative failed. There was no similar outcry when the US Department of Education pledged $44.8 million to Louisiana for post-Katrina charter schools. Yet the Administration left no doubt that the move was intended to quickly prop up charters: It offered no comparable funding to re-establish traditional neighborhood or district schools.
In addition to the federal money, charter schools also have benefited from an outpouring of nonprofit and corporate dollars that is massive by New Orleans public school standards. This past year, the Baptist Community Ministries, the state's largest private foundation, pledged $4.2 million specifically to help charter schools. The Laura Bush Foundation's impressive effort to rebuild school libraries along the Gulf Coast hasn't yet included any RSD schools, although numerous private and charter schools in New Orleans have received grants of up to $75,000 each. This influx of money has arguably led to an even greater inequity among public schools. One example: In a flattering profile of a French Quarter charter school run by the national Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), Forbes magazine noted that thanks to corporate funding, the school can spend $1,500 more per student than it receives from federal and state funding. Donations to new KIPP schools in the city include $2 million from the Broad Education Foundation. "The most powerful foundations and wealthiest people are helping some schools succeed that conform to their vision of what schools should be," says Lance Hill. "It's an attempt to influence the outcomes of an experiment."
Although Bush makes infrequent trips to New Orleans--he left the struggles of the Gulf Coast out of his 2007 State of the Union address altogether--he never fails to use his appearances in the city to highlight the new schools. In March Bush stopped at Samuel J. Green Middle School, a well-regarded elementary school that had chartered before Katrina. "Charter schools, to me, say innovation, individuality," Bush declared before an audience of education leaders. Bush used his visit to the New Orleans school to lobby for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, touting its emphasis on testing: "You can't guess, particularly when it comes to the life of a child."
Guesswork is now a hallmark of New Orleans schools, say critics including Jesse Jackson, who has made frequent trips to New Orleans to organize around education, housing and voting rights. "The charter school movement is privatization, which undermines public education," Jackson says. "Charter schools for a few must not displace public education for all. The students of New Orleans should not be put in a position of being guinea pigs in an experiment."
The appeal of charter schools to conservatives is evident: Charters introduce free-market competition into a traditional public institution. In the language of many charter advocates, parents are consumers and charters are product providers. The more schools on the shelf, the more options for parent shoppers. The problems of public education in the United States, then, aren't about underfunded schools or overcrowded classrooms. The fault lies with the classic flaws of big government: bloated bureaucracy and political corruption. Charter schools undermine big government, clearing the way for efficiency and innovation.
That argument is especially resonant in New Orleans, where just this summer a former school board president admitted she took more than $100,000 in bribes for supporting a particular math program. Yet charter critics say that the competitive model is failing the city's most at-risk students and creating a system that is even more segregated than before. By selective admissions, parental contracts and grade requirements, charter schools are able to "cream" their students not just by race and class but also by levels of parental involvement. If a child doesn't have parents or guardians willing or able to navigate the sometimes labyrinthine path into a charter school, that child will join the other, less fortunate students in an RSD school. "Many in New Orleans now refer to the RSD schools as 'the dumping ground,'" writes Leigh Dingerson of the Center for Community Change. "Such a set of catch-all schools is required in a free market system, because there must be a place for the kids who don't gain entry elsewhere."
Yet Ayers, who calls charter schools "liberation strategies," says that there is a progressive argument to be made for charters. Organizations like KIPP are developing vital strategies in inner-city education, he says, and not all charter-school proponents in New Orleans and elsewhere support the President and his educational policies. "The charter movement is dominated in the trenches by progressives, even when we've been represented on the national stage by conservatives," he says. To those who argue that charters amount to privatization of a public institution because some chartering organizations are for-profit groups, he counters that much of public education--from textbooks to cleaning services--is already privatized.
In 2000 Jonathan Schorr argued in these pages that progressives should not write off charter schools, and that "liberals need not abdicate their place on the educational cutting edge, and ought not be seen as defenders of bureaucracy and failure." Indeed, among the most vocal champions of New Orleans charters have been the city's most prominent Democrats. Senator Mary Landrieu has called charter schools the backbone of the city's educational renaissance. The senator's aunt, Orleans Parish School Board president Phyllis Landrieu, was even more ecstatic about the changes. "I say, 'Thank you, Katrina,' all the time," she told Time magazine at the start of the 2006-07 school year.