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The Charter School Flood | The Nation

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The Charter School Flood

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As president of the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO), Brenda Mitchell is used to being called a defender of failure, and worse. "We've been painted as obstructionists, which is not the case," she says, speaking amid folding chairs, file cabinets and solidarity signs, and the sound of drills and hammers, in the union's temporary offices in New Orleans. "I've been told that the union is trying to run the schools. All we are saying is that we should work together on this."

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

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Michael Tisserand
Michael Tisserand, the author of Sugarcane Academy: How a New Orleans Teacher and His Storm-Struck Students Created a...

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It took Gustav to make Hurricane Katrina a campaign issue.

There's little evidence so far that Democrats will push for reconstruction in New Orleans.

Mitchell estimates the union's pre-Katrina membership at 4,700, and UTNO was the exclusive bargaining agent for another 2,000 school employees. The union now has about 500 members, she says, and is working on organizing inside charter schools.

Those responsible for reshaping New Orleans schools make no apologies for being anti-union. In written testimony before a US Senate subcommittee hearing in July 2006, Linda Johnson, president of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, listed this item as a positive "unintended consequence" of the state takeover: "This structure was the only way to terminate...central office employees, eliminate the collective bargaining agreement and leverage the opportunity to start anew." Ayers, of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, is more succinct: "In the urban setting, the unions add so little value, it's shocking."

Mitchell, for her part, contends that unions are valuable not only because they give teachers a voice in the workplace but because they help prevent the kind of troubles that the RSD has faced in the past school year. Jim Randels says he's seen this firsthand as a teacher at Douglass. The union contract insured that a school's heating system was checked before winter. This year, that didn't happen--and Randels says the school had to shut down temporarily when winter came and the heater didn't function.

In December 2005 the Orleans Parish School Board voted to fire all teachers and other school employees. Many veteran teachers left the city or took early retirement. Not surprisingly, chief among the problems that plagued RSD schools this past year was a teacher shortage. "Our teachers were forced to retire. They want to come back, but not under these conditions--not without a recognition agreement with United Teachers of New Orleans," says Linda Stelly, an associate director with the American Federation of Teachers.

New Schools for New Orleans head Sarah Usdin has worked alongside union officials on previous projects in New Orleans schools. "My bottom line is that unionized or not, we need the best teachers to get the best results with kids," Usdin says. Yet some charter critics argue that new teacher-recruiting groups such as New Schools for New Orleans and teachNOLA are steering the most qualified educators only into the charter school system, further deepening the quality gap between RSD schools and charters. For much of this past school year, a teachNOLA website offered visitors a chance to identify themselves as certified or uncertified teachers. Those who identified themselves as certified were sent to a site for charter schools; those who were uncertified were sent to a site for RSD schools. Usdin says that the distinction was an unintended result of contract structuring. The site no longer divides the potential teaching pool in the same manner.

Usdin stresses that she is interested in bringing new teachers into New Orleans, especially from "the diaspora"--former New Orleanians who left the city after Katrina. She's not interested, she says, in shuffling teachers from school to school. Yet competition among schools for teachers seems fierce in the new school marketplace. Outside an uptown restaurant this spring, I heard one preschool teacher complaining about the conditions in her charter school. A neighborhood activist immediately began recruiting her for a charter he was helping to establish. Randels says he's personally seen representatives from charter schools enter RSD schools to recruit teachers, and adds that teachers have left their classes in the middle of the semester to take other positions, further disrupting classrooms. "This is no longer democracy; it's capitalism," Randels charges.

That ethos now permeates New Orleans public schools. Hal Roark is a resident in Broadmoor--a mixed-race, mixed-income neighborhood that organized itself after learning that it had been slated by a city-planning group to be converted into green space. Broadmoor residents realized that the neighborhood's recovery depended on the establishment of a public school. After researching various national charter companies, residents contracted with the for-profit Edison Schools. Yet it has been unable to secure a site in the neighborhood--even though a nearby school building has been open and unsecured since the storm and has suffered heavy losses due to post-Katrina vandalism. At the same time, Roark notices a former parochial school in the neighborhood and wonders if another group could place a charter in that building, siphoning off his new school's students. "Remember, this is a competitive model," he says.

If so, it's not always a transparent one. Sheila Williams works with the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition in New Orleans; she recalls that she and others were working with families in the Guste Housing Project to open a nearby RSD school. After months of speaking with RSD officials and organizing families in the effort, she learned from state education officials that the building was going to a charter group. "They can make as many charters as they want, but they need to stop giving away all the buildings," she says.

Yet in the new New Orleans, the option to charter is often seen as necessary to getting a neighborhood back on its feet--nowhere more so than in the city's heavily damaged Lower Ninth Ward. Before Katrina, the neighborhood's Martin Luther King Elementary School was an Orleans public school success story. When the region flooded, residents violated official orders and worked with the Common Ground activist group to enter and clean the building. Neither the city nor the state, it seemed, had any interest in reopening the school. "The reality check is that the schools below Canal Street were X-ed off the map," says Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who represents the area on the City Council.

And so principal Doris Hicks, Willard-Lewis says, was given a choice between two "wrong" options: charter or go away. Hicks now appears in advertisements for New Schools for New Orleans that champion the autonomy of charter schools.

At a parade through the Lower Ninth this past Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the scene was of a community refusing to give up. Children from the Martin Luther King Charter School, temporarily located in an uptown New Orleans building, marched past flood-stained empty houses carrying signs that stated We Study and We Do Homework, while sweat streamed down the faces of brass band musicians who chanted, "We got fire!" National Guardsmen on patrol and Common Ground volunteers stopped their activities to watch as teachers climbed out of a pickup truck to dance in the street with students. The sign on the Martin Luther King school still had a pre-Katrina date: August 18, 2005. Hicks ran to a cooler to get sodas for students and teachers. "I used to not believe in charter schools," she admitted.

By the end of the school year, the Ninth Ward location for the Martin Luther King Charter School was reopened. Meanwhile, according to area graduation rates compiled by the Times-Picayune from RSD data, of the sixty-six seniors who started at Joseph T. Clark High School this past school year, fifty-eight remained. Of those, twenty-six students--just 39 percent--made it to graduation.

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