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COMMENTARY: What Parents and Students Should Know about Charter Schools

Anitra Brown says that New Orleans is ground zero for all things charter school and the evidence tells us that most of these
Anitra Brown says that New Orleans is ground zero for all things charter school and the evidence tells us that most of these schools are performing as bad or worse […]

Late last year, “The New York Times” and “The Washington Post” criticized the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for its call for a moratorium on charter schools. Editorial writers at The Post even got all clever with their Oct. 11 headline, “The NAACP opposes charter schools. Maybe it should do its homework.”

Of course, the pun was intended. And it was cute, off beam, but cute.

To be sure, it is both media outlets that need to do a little extra studying when it comes to the question of putting the brakes on charter schools.

First, let’s be abundantly clear. When the board of NAACP called for a temporary stop on the opening of additional charter schools nationwide, they suggested only that the impact of the publicly-funded, privately-operated institutions on both equity and excellence in education deserved further scrutiny before another dollar was spent or another public school student was sacrificed in the name of so-called education reform.

They have not asked for a permanent end to charters.

They have not asked that all existing charters be shutdown.

They have asked, as best as we can surmise, only that we stop, take a collective breath, and actually determine what has been accomplished or damaged in public education as a result of the proliferation of charter schools across the nation before another charter is granted by a state or local education agency until the following demands are met:

Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools.

Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.

Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate.

Charter schools cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high, but whose talents are not yet as obvious.

That seems fair enough. In fact, it is more than fair, especially when we consider the impact of this corporate-driven education reform model and the proliferation of charter schools here in New Orleans. And we are especially angry as the architects of the fake reform movement put their money and power behind convincing Black people that the NAACP is wrong and trying to hurt them. Scratch that. We are mad as hell at all the Black folk falling for that narrative.

Indeed, it’s the editorial writers at both The Post and The Times that need to go straight to the principal’s office for attempting to thump the NAACP without having a deep understanding of how the littering of the public education landscape with charter schools has adversely impacted disenfranchised and marginalized communities.

Make no mistake, New Orleans—home to the nation’s first and only all-charter school district and the epi-center of a corporate-driven reform effort—serves as the example of why a stop, temporary or otherwise, to charters is needed.

Despite grand claims to the opposite, the results of charter schools are hardly remarkable.

According to recent school performance measures, the 50 schools currently under control of the all-charter Recovery School District for which school performance data is available have earned letter grades as follows:

A’s – 0

B’s – 7

C’s – 19

D’s – 16

F’s – 6

T’s – 2

Let’s analyze this. Two of the 50 are graded “T”, meaning they are in transition from one charter operator to another and have been given additional time before SPS scores and grades are applied to the campus.

Nineteen (19) of the schools have earned a “C”; and last we checked, a “C” meant that a performance level was not perfect, not great, just average. So, “average” traditionally-operated public schools have been replaced by “average,” privately-managed, publicly funded charter operations with non-elected boards that do not have to answer to voters or taxpayers. For the record, that’s like going to your phone service provider to upgrade your gold colored iPhone 6s Plus and getting stuck with a silver colored iPhone 6s Plus…with a Siri app that doesn’t respond to your voice commands. To be sure, there are charter school boards operating in New Orleans for years that have only in recent months begun to follow state law as it relates to the public posting of their meetings and minutes. Now, if that wasn’t enough to make folk want to pump the brakes on charter schools, consider this: A full 22 of the 50 charter schools operated by the all-charter RSD in New Orleans are either D or F schools, meaning they are close to failing or have failed.

Of course, it’s not all bleak. There are seven charter schools overseen by the RSD that earned school performance scores that gave them a “B” letter grade. Wait, before you blow up the balloons, hang streamers and cut the cake, let’s get a few more facts straight as to how the school closures, takeovers, so-called reform and the charter explosion happened in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

With a city decimated and its residents scattered across the country, the state education leaders and state legislature—pushed, no doubt, by the masterminds of the corporate-driven reform movement—met in Baton Rouge to authorize the takeover of Orleans Parish Public Schools, a plan that had been designed and put in place long before Katrina. In order to facilitate the wholesale takeover of public education in New Orleans, the legislature had to amend state law to raise the minimum school performance score from 60.0 to 87.4. Before this, only five schools in Orleans Parish had scores that designated them as failing. After amending the law, more than 100 schools were deemed failing. In short, the takeover was manufactured by slight of pen.

Of course, there is inherently nothing wrong with raising the bar—if the plan is to keep it high. But it wasn’t. When it became evident that charter schools weren’t performing miracles, keeping the higher standard did not work for the architects of the reform. So they went back to their buddies in the state legislature, who were happy to amend the law again to lower the minimum SPS a school needed to have in order to hide the failure of the very reform it ushered in. Today, elementary and middle schools only need to have a 66.2 SPS to earn a “C.” The SPS for a high school can be as low as 70 to earn a “C” letter grade. This sort of legislative maneuvering makes measuring real progress or any regression impossible.

But this much is clear—as of right now only five of the charter schools under the all-charter RSD have school performance scores higher than 87.4—the score used to declare public schools as failures and hand them over to charter operators more than 10 years ago. To put it another way, most all of these campuses—now being heralded as the answer to all that was wrong with public education—would have been taken over by the state after Hurricane Katrina. Of course, that’s a lot like giving someone a one dollar bill, but trying to convince him it’s worth $5 by taking a magic marker and writing a big “5” on George Washington’s face.

Now add to all of this mayhem, the fact that charter schools in New Orleans and elsewhere have developed notorious reputations for their failure to adequately serve special needs students; or that the loss of neighborhood schools and bussing students all over the city has wreaked havoc on families that have had to send their children to bus stops as early at 5:30 in the morning to go to a “C” (if they are lucky) school 20 miles away from their homes; or that with the proliferation of charter schools has come the promulgation of non-elected charter school boards that use the people’s money without the people’s oversight effectively resulting in taxation without representation; or that with this so-called reform has come the same mismanagement and misappropriation of public dollars under the control of some charter operators for which the elected school board and public school system were often criticized and denigrated prior to the takeover; or that the billions in funding that came to Louisiana to stabilize public education after Katrina was doled out as grants to private charter management companies and used to provide Teach for America recruits with signing bonuses while more than 7,000 veteran educators and school employees were fired without cause or due process; or that this entire reform is funded by major corporations with their eyes fixed on profiting from our children as opposed to serving them and providing a quality education.

It is worth noting that all of this started under the watch of a Democrat governor, Kathleen Blanco, and has been sustained and heavily funded at both the federal and state levels under the executive or legislative leadership of Democrat officials, who must be held responsible for their continued role in undermining public education.

Did we mention that only five of the charter schools in the all charter RSD-New Orleans actually have SPS scores higher than the scores of the schools taken over by the state after Katrina?

These schools, the so-called miracles are failing—the numbers say so. How much more homework does The Post need us to do?

Even when we look at the performance of the handful of public schools—both traditional and charter—currently under control of the Orleans Parish School Board, we perceive their claims of tremendous success with a jaundice eye, recognizing that the local school system—after being pilfered of its schools by the state—was left with those schools that were its top-performing academies and magnet campuses prior to Hurricane Katrina. We have also watched as this local school board—all but co-opted by pro-charter, pro-reform advocates—has abandoned its role in creating more traditional public schools.

Yet, The Post and The Times can’t seem to understand why a freeze on more charters is in order. Well, there may be some pretty decent writers at these fine publications, but they obviously failed all their math classes if they can’t discern that something just isn’t adding up with the frenzied and furious push to put a charter school on every corner despite little or no real evidence of their success. In fact, here in New Orleans—ground zero for all things charter school—the evidence tells that most of these schools are performing as bad or worse than the traditional public schools they replaced.

So yes, it is high time the farce ends.

And this is just what we know is happening in New Orleans. We at The New Orleans Tribune know because we have been talking and writing and fighting about it for more than a decade now. And what has and is happening here in New Orleans, Louisiana should be enough for every state board of education and local education agency across America to think twice before approving another charter.

But, the folks at the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have examined the charter school situation across the nation and found legitimate reasons why the rollout of more charters needs to come to come to halt—at least for a while. If our tales of woe weren’t enough, there are the concerns being raised across the country.

They are looking at what has been in happening—the targeting of low-income communities for the closure of traditional public schools, the selective admissions practices that often result in extreme segregation, the fiscal mismanagement, the diversion of and lack of accountability for taxpayer funds, and the violation of civil and educational rights—in places like North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, New York and California, as well. They want evidence of the success of charters—not empty claims of success or examples of artificial achievement like we’ve seen here. What is so wrong with that?

Give us one real reason charters can’t wait.

Here at The Tribune, we applaud the NAACP and Black Lives Matter for the courageous leadership and independent voices on the issue of charter schools. We know exactly what it is like to speak the truth on this topic and the misuse of charter schools to what seems like no avail. We hope that adding their voices to the chorus will force others to pay attention.

To be sure, it’s about time someone called for a moratorium on charter schools. Maybe if The Post and The Times did their homework or at least decided that they weren’t going to be swayed by the all the big money and big names pushing this reform, they would see that too.

Here at The Tribune, we applaud the NAACP and Black Lives Matter for the courageous leadership and independent voices on the issue of charter schools.

Anitra Brown is the managing editor at The New Orleans Tribune. You can reach Anitra by email