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.

Temple University Press is having a Back-to-School SALE!

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Commemorating Katrina Ten Years Later

This week in North Philly Notes, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the natural disaster, we feature various Temple University Press titles on and authors whose work relates to Hurricane Katrina.


Peek.Lori_1

Behind the Backlash author Lori Peek, was interviewed on the CBS Evening News on August 24 about the Children of Katrina.

Peek is the author of two books on Katrina,  Displaced: Life in the Katrina Diaspora (with Lynn Weber) and Children of Katrina  (with Alice Fothergill).

Filling the Ark by Leslie Irvine

Filling the Ark sm compWhen disasters strike, people are not the only victims. Hurricane Katrina raised public attention about how disasters affect dogs, cats, and other animals considered members of the human family. In this short but powerful book, noted sociologist Leslie Irvine goes beyond Katrina to examine how disasters like oil spills, fires, and other calamities affect various animal populations—on factory farms, in research facilities, and in the wild.

Filling the Ark argues that humans cause most of the risks faced by animals and urges for better decisions about the treatment of animals in disasters. Furthermore, it makes a broad appeal for the ethical necessity of better planning to keep animals out of jeopardy. Irvine not only offers policy recommendations and practical advice for evacuating animals, she also makes a strong case for rethinking our use of animals, suggesting ways to create more secure conditions.

The Possessive Investment in Whiteness by George Lipsitz

Possessive_Investment_rev_ed_smIn this unflinching look at white supremacy, George Lipsitz argues that racism is a matter of interests as well as attitudes, a problem of property as well as pigment. Above and beyond personal prejudice, whiteness is a structured advantage that produces unfair gains and unearned rewards for whites while imposing impediments to asset accumulation, employment, housing, and health care for minorities.

Lipsitz delineates the weaknesses embedded in civil rights laws, the racial dimensions of economic restructuring and deindustrialization, and the effects of environmental racism, job discrimination and school segregation. He also analyzes the centrality of whiteness to U.S. culture, This revised and expanded edition of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness includes an essay about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on working class Blacks in New Orleans, whose perpetual struggle for dignity and self determination has been obscured by the city’s image as a tourist party town.

Rebuilding Community_smRebuilding Community after Katrina, edited by Ken Reardon and John Forester (forthcoming in November)

Rebuilding Community after Katrina chronicles the innovative and ambitious partnership between Cornell University’s City and Regional Planning department and ACORN Housing, an affiliate of what was the nation’s largest low-income community organization. These unlikely allies came together to begin to rebuild devastated neighborhoods in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The editors and contributors to this volume allow participants’ voices to show how this partnership integrated careful, technical analysis with aggressive community outreach and organizing. With essays by activists, organizers, community members, and academics on the ground, Rebuilding Community after Katrina presents insights on the challenges involved in changing the way politicians and analysts imagined the future of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.

What emerges from this complex drama are lessons about community planning, organizational relationships, and team building across multi-cultural lines. The accounts presented in Rebuilding Community after Katrina raise important and sensitive questions about the appropriate roles of outsiders in community-based planning processes.

Disaster for Dogs

Leslie Irvine, author of Filling the Ark speaks out about animal welfare in disasters.

Filling the Ark

Filling the Ark

On Wednesday, February 11, a team of trained disaster responders converged on a home in Sparta, Tennessee. The effort involved law enforcement and medical personnel, forensics investigators, and emergency relief vehicles loaded with supplies. Rescuers who entered the premises had to wear respirators and other protective equipment. Most of the victims required immediate medical attention. Four were found dead. Many victims were pregnant or nursing mothers. The rescue effort eventually involved over fourteen agencies in several states, along with dozens of volunteers. Rescuers transported the victims, who numbered nearly 300, to an emergency shelter at a local fairground. Many have since moved to temporary homes in other states. Even after they move into permanent homes, some of the victims will suffer the effects of trauma forever. The rescue cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and untold hours of work.

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