The Pitfalls of an All-Charter School District

This week in North Philly Notes, J. Celeste Lay, author of Public Schools, Private Governance, writes about how school choice in New Orleans hurt more than it helped.

The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on our lives in so many ways, but for children, one of its most important and potentially lasting effects has been in public education. The pandemic has been a boon for school choice advocates, who see in this disaster a means to push legislation that eases restrictions on charter schools, voucher programs, homeschooling, and more.

The parents and teachers of public school students in New Orleans know all too well how advocates can take advantage of a disaster to achieve long-term political goals. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Louisiana’s state legislature voted to strip the city’s school board of its authority over nearly all its public schools. In Public Schools, Private Governance, I examine the path that has led the city to become the nation’s first all-charter district, and its consequences on democratic values like representation, accountability, and participation.

Although many scholars and advocates place Katrina as the starting point for education reform in New Orleans, I contend that the hurricane merely sped along and expanded the scope of the already existing reform movement in the city. The book spotlights the decade prior to Katrina to reveal and examine the incremental policy changes that made it possible for the state to seize control of the city’s schools. In this period, state legislators—including many of New Orleans’s representatives—passed a school grading system, mandated annual standardized tests, eased the pathways to alternative teacher certification, created multiple types of charter schools, approved a state “recovery” district that could take over “failing schools,” and ultimately, in the year before Katrina, stripped the elected board in New Orleans (and only New Orleans) of most of its authority. By the time the city was draining the floodwaters in Fall 2005, all the state had to do was change the definition of a failing school for it to seize all but a handful of the city’s schools.

This movement largely excluded those who worked in the schools, as well as the parents of school children. This exclusion continued in the wake of Katrina and I show that it continues to the present day. In the all-charter system, parents theoretically have choices about where their children enroll in school. They must rank preferences in a Common Application and there are no neighborhood schools to which kids are assigned. They can go anywhere—in theory. However, in reality, as shown in my book many parents are confused by the system and do not believe it is fair. In particular, they see that the racial disparities that have long been a hallmark of New Orleans public schools continue in this new, supposedly better system. The few white children who attend public schools are enrolled in selective admission schools that require admission tests and other barriers to entry. Meanwhile, the Black children who make up most of the public school district  continue to attend low-performing schools that are predominantly Black institutions.

Although a generation of children have now gone through the new system, the district’s scores have remained well below the state average and only a small minority of schools are rated as “A” or “B” on the state’s A-F scale. Though overall test scores have improved slightly, Black parents do not believe their children are getting a great education and they believe they have little recourse to do anything about it. The elected school board is essentially a mere charter authorizer, and while it has opened and closed dozens of schools over the last 17 years, parents long for high-quality, neighborhood schools staffed by experienced teachers who understand and appreciate New Orleans culture and history. This elected board has almost no authority over school operations. Rather, privately selected charter boards govern school finances, select school leaders, and establish policies. My research shows that these boards are not representative of the city; they cannot be held accountable by voters, they display disdain for parents, and they do not comply with state laws about public bodies. They routinely withhold information they are required to disclose and yet the elected board never sanctions schools or networks for these violations.

For states that are considering an expansion of school choice due to the Covid-19 pandemic, my book offers a warning about the effects of considering schools as consumer goods. There is little improvement in overall school quality, but there is devastation to the local democratic character of public education.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: