This fall, New Orleans’s Recovery School District became the country’s first all-charter district, completing a process begun following Hurricane Katrina, when the Bush administration refused to pay for reopening public schools, instead providing $45 million for charter schools to take their place. While these schools are publicly funded, the local community has no control over their curriculum or quality because they are not overseen by any democratically elected school board.
If corporate lobbyists have their way, the New Orleans model will be replicated across the country, with Netflix CEO and charter booster Reed Hastings leading the call to “get rid of school boards.”
Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, a new type of segregation is spreading across the urban landscape. The US Chamber of Commerce, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity and their legislative allies are promoting an ambitious, two-pronged agenda for poor cities: replace public schools with privately run charter schools, and replace teachers with technology.
What was accomplished by a hurricane in New Orleans is being pursued elsewhere by legislation. The formula is simple: use standardized tests to declare dozens of poor schools “persistently failing”; put these under the control of a special unelected authority; and then have that authority replace the public schools with charters. In 2011, Tennessee and Michigan created special districts to take over low-scoring schools; in both cases, the superintendent was specifically authorized to replace public schools with charters. This year, Wisconsin legislators considered a bill that bypassed the middle step and simply required that low-performing public schools be replaced with privately run charters. Since test scores are primarily a function of poverty, it’s no surprise that 80 percent of the Tennessee schools targeted for privatization are in Memphis, or that the Michigan and Wisconsin bills focus, respectively, on Detroit and Milwaukee.
Recently, corporate-backed reform advocates have begun insisting that no public authority whatsoever be responsible for running schools. Neerav Kingsland, the former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, warns that superintendents “must not succumb to the temptation to improve schools through better direct operation. Rather, [they] must humbly acknowledge that a marketplace of school operators will…out-perform even the best direct-run system.” Hastings similarly suggests that the role of elected school boards be limited to “bringing to town more and more charter-school networks. Sort of like a Chamber of Commerce would to develop business.”
Thus, what “slum clearance” did for the real-estate industry in the 1960s and ’70s, high-stakes testing will do for the charter industry: wipe away large swaths of public schools, enabling private operators to grow not school by school, but twenty or thirty schools at a time.