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Alumni Opinions

Is The Charter Solution Really a Solution?

by Hamilton Simons-Jones
The charter school movement is new. It began in the 1990s1.  Since that time, it has only picked up steam. In New Orleans, it was not until 1999 that the first charter school opened in the city. Now, after Hurricane Katrina—a catastrophe in which the city’s public school enrollment went from 68,000 to 0 in a single day—more than half of the 45 public schools (and growing daily), that have reopened within city limits are charter schools. The debate over charter schools has raged in formal and informal settings around the city over the last 12 months, since the publicly elected school board voted in October, 2005 to charter more than twenty schools, effectively releasing them from their oversight. Every parent, and just about any newspaper-reading or evening news-watching citizen, has become a reluctant expert on the subject. The charter school is not so much a movement as a trend, reflective of many of our 21stcentury trends.
I came to this subject as a lover of New Orleans and an advocate for quality public education. I have worked in the field of education and the New Orleans Public Schools for the last nine years, as a volunteer, tutor, a coordinator of a school renovation program, and as a board member of a non-profit organization that champions and coordinates community resources for public education. This past year, I completed my Master’s degree in Urban Studies with research focusing on ownership in New Orleans Public Schools in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While I have done some research on this issue, by no means do I consider myself an expert. If I am an expert on anything, it is the issues and intricacies in New Orleans, not yet the solutions.
But I do know this. We live in a country in which the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, where the gap between “haves” and “have nots” is getting wider rather than smaller. The middle class is disappearing. Many cities, particularly their urban cores (including New Orleans, even pre-Katrina), are shrinking, while the suburbs around them continue to grow. Despite efforts to the contrary, the landscape of urban America remains very much segregated by race and class. This trend is connected to a larger trend, in which power moves from public to private ownership. Examples of this privatization of areas that traditionally fell under the guise of government in the name of the people range from private security districts in wealthy communities, to water and utility management, to health care and education. This trend is a dangerous one. As more of our society falls outside of the realm of public accountability (most often in the name of “efficiency” and “cost-effectiveness,”) the interests of the greater public good (representing all in our society) are often sacrificed. Anything moving away from the “public good,” history has shown us, benefits those with greater wealth, access, power and privilege (who often have seats at the table in the decision-making process) and disproportionately impacts poor people and people of color. It is an abandonment of the public sector and democratic ideal. Charter schools are part of this trend.
The debate over charter schools in New Orleans is about ownership. Education and knowledge, by nature, are political. So it is very important to look not only at what is taught in the schools, but who controls them, and whose interests do they serve. In New Orleans, public education as a whole has been dismal for years, long before Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city and its school system. There is no question that our current education system is failing many young Americans—particularly poor communities of color that have been traditionally and historically oppressed, disadvantaged, under-resourced, underprivileged, impoverished, economically depressed and countless other adjectives we attach to them. And it would be foolish to argue that there are not incredible successes in charter schools. More often than not, charter schools are producing results in the form of quality education, where results have often been slow, at best.
But this privatization on the whole doesn’t work for all students. Since the birth of the charter school movement, there has been a tremendous growth in educational management organizations. That is because schools are a big business and there is profit to be made off of them (most often in the name of children and quality education). The New Orleans public school system was a $500 million dollar-a-year operation before Hurricane Katrina. There are millions of dollars to be made or lost in businesses supplementing the education system, including food service contracts, custodial contracts, the text book industry, etc. These EMOs threaten to have the same impact HMOs are having in the health care industry. They become a barrier to the provision of quality care as well as access to it among those who need it most. They are often out-of-town organizations that have little knowledge of the local community. And they don’t have any stake in the local community, outside of their balance sheet.
A bottom-line dollars and cents approach to education doesn’t work. Check out what communities have to say about the so-called reforms of financial turnaround agencies like Alvarez and Marsal in the St. Louis and New Orleans school systems. Alvarez and Marsal is a New York City based firm that has received millions of dollars from the Louisiana Department of Education to comprehensively restructure the New Orleans public school system and ensure appropriate quality controls are implemented as part of a state takeover of the system. Following Hurricane Katrina, they have played a key role in the start up of charter schools in New Orleans. While Alvarez and Marsal may have begun to clean up the financial mismanagement of the district, they have done it at the expense of communities. Education is about a larger social good. Schools cannot be dealt with simply by looking at financial statements. They need to be driven by more than bottom-line economics. Children and their parents are more than just consumers investing in a product called education. Schools are intricately linked to the communities around them. Our whole society depends on education. And the problem with charter schools is much the same as the problem with school voucher programs. What good does it do for that 96% majority of students who aren’t in charter schools? It leaves them with fewer resources, less attention, less support, and often, less talent in their classrooms.
As one 33-year veteran teacher at O. Perry Walker High School, a New Orleans public school-recently-turned charter, witnessed:


Our kids used to come from the Navy base and a lot of them had parents who worked in the petrochemical industry. They were middle and upper class. That changed with the oil bust in the 1980s. Then the district started doing magnet schools. I think it was around 1987. They skimmed the cream off of the top at Walker (emphasis added). The high performing children went to Ben Franklin [High School] and [Edna] Karr leaving us with what was left. When Karr became a magnet school, it really hurt Walker. 

Despite the advances of the civil rights movement, the reality of the New Orleans public school system since long before Hurricane Katrina is that the system was only becoming more segregated, not less. From 1989 to 2003, the population of white students in the New Orleans public school system decreased from eight percent to four percent, and as of 2003, 47 percent of the 2,815 white students who remained in the public school system were enrolled in magnet or charter schools (National Center for Education Statistics). These schools, while publicly funded, were elite. The majority of magnet schools practiced selective admission based on students’ proven records of achievement. Those that didn’t follow such clear admissions standards were still selective. Admission was based on geographic area, with the majority of these schools located in wealthier neighborhoods. It was based on the ability to apply—parents often had to wait in line overnight, know somebody in the system, provide transportation, or jump over other hurdles. These hurdles, of course, tended to weed out poorer and working class families, in which mom or grandma is the only caretaker and she has to hold down two jobs to feed the children. She doesn’t have time to wait in line for school and can’t afford to live in the neighborhood, much less meet the requirements for parental involvement that some charter schools enforce. The New Orleans school system has increasingly become a system of “haves” and “have-nots,” in which the “haves” opt for more selective magnet, charter or more expensive parochial or private schools, leaving “the have-nots” behind in a failing public school system with decreasing resources, community support and investment. Charter schools are only hastening that division.

I would be interested in seeing statistics on literacy rates of parents who have children in charter schools versus private schools. I bet the correlation is clear. Charter schools are not doing much to address illiteracy in this country. In New Orleans, according to the 1999 National Adult Literacy Survey, 4 out of 10 adults could not read. Those who cannot read face even greater challenges navigating a fragmented and now overcrowded public school system in which one’s rights as a parent and student are not clear and there is no publicly-elected body to hold accountable.

Charter schools are not the answer. While they do provide quality education, they are far from a system-wide solution.  If we are serious about providing quality education to all children, I would encourage us to be wary of charter schools. We need to keep looking.

While the book is still open on the massive charter school “reforms” in New Orleans, several things are becoming clear.  After all the backroom politicking, heated debates and court cases, (yes, that is plural), the quality of students’ education still depends largely on the quality of the school leadership. And the leadership in many of these schools would have been the same, whether or not they were chartered. Research supports that one of the most important indicators for quality education is the vision and leadership of the school principal. Even our friends at Alvarez and Marsal leaders agree on that. Despite minimal experience and background in education, one leader of the firm says:

I think there is a correlation: great principals, clean schools; so-so principals, dirty schools. Everywhere I go—St. Louis is the same thing—give me a [great] principal and you can look at the kids, not only with beautiful schools, but you can also see performance-wise how well the kids are doing.

Mary Laurie, principal of O. Perry Walker Charter School in New Orleans, is a great principal.  She works within the structures she has been given—in this instance a charter school—to fulfill the same vision she had when she served as a principal in a publicly-governed school. She works to ensure that O. Perry Walker High School is a mission-driven school that always focuses on the children it serves, encouraging community participation in the process.  She would have been principal there whether it was run by the Orleans Parish School Board or the Algiers Charter School Association.  If, however, the school remained under the jurisdiction of Orleans Parish School Board, the transition on the administrative side of the school—the books, transportation, meals, paychecks, etc.—would certainly have been smoother. The transition to a charter school has required her to focus more on operations and business management and less on education. Because her school, like most charter schools, now operates autonomously of the larger local school system, it has lost valuable leveraging power when it comes to financial management issues like books, student transportation, and meals.


In the end, the arguments about charter schools do more to sell books and newspapers than affect the quality of education for children. The unprecedented charter school “reforms” that shook up the New Orleans school system and its community following Hurricane Katrina were not reforms. They were simply steps in a restructuring driven by crisis.  The restructuring and chartering of O. Perry Walker High School and numerous other New Orleans Public Schools were about survival and opportunity.  The struggles for power, control, jobs and money were certainly real. Hundreds of millions of dollars, countless reputations, the future of the largest employer in New Orleans and the future of public institutions in the city were all at stake.  Whether the actions taken by proponents for charters will actually lead the New Orleans public school system to respectability are still left to be determined. But if history is any indicator, this radical restructuring of the school system, like the larger charter school trend of which it is a part, will only serve to widen the gap between “the haves” and the “have nots,” “the well-educated” and “the uneducated.”

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[1]The first charter school legislation passed in the United States was in Minnesota in 1991. While definitions vary, a charter school is a school run with public dollars by an appointed board outside of the traditional school system. It allows for greater freedom of curriculum and room for innovation.
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