The Exposed, Soft Underbelly of the Unsustainability of Charter School System

Ncharter_11-28-2010_2QFTJH7ew Orleans In New Orleans we have the most massive “charterization” of a public school system in America thanks to some fumbles and bait-and-switch plays immediately after Katrina.  The public school system is bifurcated between a small number of schools (many of them charters) governed by the citizen elected members of the Orleans Parish School Board and a larger system, the Recovery School District, that emerged as a takeover of the majority of the public schools after Katrina, most of which are charters run by more than 20 different contractors.  Now six years since the storm, many in the city believe that as tax-paying citizens in an ostensible democracy, the elected school board in New Orleans as opposed to some self-appointed state education bureaucrats should once again govern the schools system.  There is screaming and gnashing of teeth about this from the so-called and self-appointed “reformers.”  (See a lot more detail on this is my recently published book, The Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster, available at www.socialpolicy.org).

Recently there has started to be some discussion, it would be a stretch to call it a debate at this point, about the governance of the schools and whether to allow us sorry, no account New Orleans citizens to finally take our place again in a democracy where we might practice some accountability.  Even writing my 6-year update for the book, I was scratching my head at the preposterousness of some of the problems, particularly one by Leslie Jacobs, now the head of the rebranded Chamber of Commerce, but previously a member of the state education board.  She had proposed a Cerberus-headed monster which would ostensibly be under an elected board, but require the elected board to appoint a board underneath them just to administer the charters.  Like I said, bizarre!

Suddenly though it has all become clearer to me thanks to the new, young, fast talking head of the RSD from New York.  Reading the papers a quote jumped up to me, when John White, admitted that the “emperor had no clothes” and that “…the district will ultimately need new revenue sources to ensure the ‘long term sustainability of a system of independent charter schools.”  This “network” of so-called independent charters is referred to as a “portfolio” system, since there are so many operators with independent systems and of course budgets.   Independent budgets being the soft, exposed underbelly that they had all realized, but that I  hanging out there as “joe sausage head” had been missing.  The state reimburses each charter directly.  It does not go through a central system as it does for the Orleans School System but goes directly to the charter.  The charter kicks back a sliver to the RSD but that is capped at 1.75% by state law.  All of the insiders from White to Jacobs and on up and down the line, knew they were sitting high atop a house of cards, just waiting for the next scandal, and there have been many, where money was missing or teachers were being imported from Turkey or whatever.  The state minders don’t have the horses to ride herd on the portfolio of random charters, so they have trouble.

The code words about “other sources of revenue” means that they have to get their hands around the school millage money that goes to the Orleans system and they can’t get that legally since the state has usurped control of the schools.  They all know there has to be a centralized school system to handle admission, train and hire teachers, do the legal and accounting, and myriad other tasks, but all of that costs way more than 1.75%.

What is really going on is the preparation for another bait-and-switch.  The RSD will have to be subsumed under the elected Orleans Parish School System, but the so-called “reformers” want to try and figure out a way to bamboozle the situation so that we pay for their play, and they still escape all democratic accountability.  All of these city slickers understand that in our broke ass city there is no way that we are going to pay school taxes to two systems and in fact legally there is no way the RSD could become a separately constituted system.

This is the story no one around the country is really telling.  The charter system is “one off” and not a replicable system.  At its heart where the dollars flow, it is simply not sustainable!

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