The Charter School Flood

The Charter School Flood

Drastic changes in the educational system are leaving New Orleans’s public schools behind.


Rob Wyman says he couldn’t field any more questions about error-filled report cards, so he made this sign and tacked it onto his office bulletin board: “We are sorry. We did not do the report cards. We don’t know how the problems happened. We do not know how to fix the problems.”

He knew it was not the best way to explain to angry high school students why they hadn’t received accurate credit for their work. But incorrect report cards weren’t the worst problem at Joseph T. Clark High School, one of approximately twenty-five schools that were operated during the past school year by the State of Louisiana in the so-called Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans.

Wyman, the school’s guidance counselor, pulled open his top desk drawer and took out a sheet of paper that was covered with hand-drawn squares and arrows. In his spare time, he said, he has been devising escape routes from the school in case of a fire. The school hasn’t had a drill all year, he said. “The students have no idea where to go. The teachers have no idea where to go. Here’s the kicker: We have kids in wheelchairs on the second floor, and I’m afraid for their safety.”

As he spoke, groups of students milled about in the hallway outside his office, near the school’s metal detectors. Some of the students in the building were taking the LEAP test–the state’s high-stakes exam that monitors schools’ progress and decides if a student will be promoted to the next grade. For those who had already taken the test during a previous session, holding rooms had been assigned. The rooms weren’t monitored by the students’ regular teachers, and students were periodically popping into Wyman’s office, saying they didn’t have any work and pleading to use the phone to call their parents or guardians to come pick them up. He declined each request in apologetic tones. “My job isn’t to help you leave school,” he said to one student.

Wyman spent his lunch break leading me on a tour through the school. When we reached an upstairs classroom, William Perkinson waved us in. Perkinson readily acknowledged he had never taught before he came to Clark; he had a college degree but no teaching training or credentials. He just answered an ad in the paper. When he arrived at the school, he walked into a room filled with students doubly traumatized by Katrina and ongoing street violence. “A month ago, one of my students and his brother were shot,” he said. “I asked the kids in class the following day if they had any other friends who’d been shot and killed. They called out names and I wrote them on the board. There were eighteen names. I don’t know how these kids are handling it.”

Perkinson is like many of the new teachers I met in New Orleans over the past year: intelligent, compassionate, overwhelmed. Public-education advocates frequently complained to me that inexperienced teachers in New Orleans found themselves in front of classrooms filled with unfamiliar students, with neither formal written assessments of kids with special needs nor the benefit of experienced teachers in the building who might know the kids and their stories. A lack of formal assessments violates the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which states that schools must provide special-needs students with an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. By referring to the IEP, a teacher and an aide can quickly assess a student’s needs and offer appropriate lessons. Jim Randels, a veteran teacher at Frederick Douglass High School–also an RSD school–said that his school was 20 percent special education before Katrina but that IEPs are a rarity now. Perkinson confirmed that IEPs were not available to him. “I don’t know anything,” Perkinson said. “I don’t know who’s who, what’s what. I don’t know who’s special ed, who’s not.”

As part of the state takeover of New Orleans’s public schools, Clark is but one battleground in what some are calling an education revolution. Parts of the flooded city were still closed off to residents when, in November 2005, the Louisiana legislature cleared the way for the state to assume control of 107 out of 128 schools in the Orleans district. The act clearly targeted New Orleans, which was one of the few districts in the state with enough “academically unacceptable” schools to trigger the takeover. A majority of New Orleans’s legislators voted against the act. Immediately, the state began converting many of its newly acquired schools to charter schools–publicly funded schools run by for-profit or nonprofit groups that operate by a “charter,” or contract.

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.

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.

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.”

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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