Bond Issues Along Protests on School Takeovers, Privatization, and Charter Expansion

New Orleans  Throughout the country parents, teacher unions, and community groups have been opposing the viral spread of privatization of public school systems and the efforts of charter school operators to expand their footprint in school districts. Perhaps the most controversial maneuvers are the state takeovers of local public school districts by removing duly elected school board members and replacing them with unaccountable managers.

The most famous was certainly the post-Katrina usurpation in New Orleans which has now led to all but four of the more than 100 schools in the district being run by charter operators. School districts have also been taken over in Indianapolis, threatened in Buffalo, in some California districts, and others as well. Despite only a small number of poorly performing schools of the forty-eight in the Little Rock School District, the state of Arkansas asserted control seemingly triggered by outside donors and advocates of charter expansion being opposed by the Superintendent, who was immediately replaced.

These fights have sharp dividing lines, but increasingly the claims of private and charter operators of improved education and test scores has not been proven by the actual results. Advocates of vouchers to accelerate the process of moving students out of public schools have also made progress in more than half of the states in the country and now have a staunch advocate as head of the Department of Education, but recent studies are indicating that students are falling behind in many of these private and parochial facilities. Claims from New Orleans and New York that such programs would decrease racial and ethnic segregation in public school systems are also achieving the opposite outcomes.

In the tug of war over school control, which is often cultural and ideological, the voice of protests have often been simply ignored by state governments and others. Events in the ongoing fight in Little Rock may have found a way to force authorities to hear their opposition using the ballot box to express their anger when presented with a school bond issue. A wide coalition of groups, including Local 100 and Arkansas Community Organizations, the former Arkansas ACORN, opposing the bond issue for new school construction and other programs in the district united under the banner of “Taxation without Representation,” made their protest of the state takeover clear.

Despite a united business community and being outspent by a ratio of ten to one, opponents smashed the bond issue by a margin of almost 2 to 1, 65% to 35%. The district is 70% African-American now and in many African-American precincts the margins against the bond issue ran 90% to 10%. Normally liberal districts in middle-income, hipper Heights area also defeated the bond issue strongly. The turnout was the highest for a bond issue in 17 years. The Governor Asa Hutchinson, whose administration was responsible for the takeover, campaigned for the measure and was embarrassed by the results. The state appointed Superintendent was forced to concede the loss even before balloting ended.

Bond mileage increases on property taxes funding school districts are usually the lifeblood of public schools. Often the district needs the money as much as the taxpayers do in these tough financial times, but even if this is playing with fire, there is no denying the power of the protest when a community unites to oppose privatization, charter expansion, and undemocratic takeovers of local districts. Little Rock protesters and voters may have shown others around the country the path to take to force their voices to be heeded.

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Charters Don’t Change School Segregation

New Orleans   In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans public schools were hijacked through a state takeover that made the city the largest charter school experiment in the country. A special grant from President George W. Bush became an offer too good for the state to turn down as it muscled aside the publicly elected school board and set about redesigning the school system. Where the charter movement had been stopped in the past by requirements for concurring votes by the system, the parents, and the teachers, the union was broken and the takeover was complete.

There were a number of claims for what this takeover might mean. Most of them have not been met, including improvements in test scores and student performance. A proposal to turn over the last five non-charter schools to a newly minted charter operator was suddenly withdrawn, preventing the system from now being 100% charterized. The school board is gradually replacing the state recovery district, so there is hope for local control once again.

One claim though that the charter-boosters had maintained as a premise for their bold experiment is that the school system under their control would be more equally integrated by race and income. Making the whole city open-admissions was supposed to be a workaround for residential segregation in this majority African-American city. On that score the experiment has earned an F minus.

This must have been a bitter pill for the Tulane Education Research Alliance for New Orleans to report since Tulane and its then president had been huge backers of the charter movement including funding one school, essentially for their own staff and professors. The report indicated the following:

  • High school segregation increased for students who were African-American, Latino, low-income or learning English.
  • White students were just as likely to be concentrated in particular schools as they were pre-Katrina.
  • The typical low-income student is in a school that is 78% low-income, which is 6% worse than before the storm.
  • Before, Katrina, only one high school was less than 80% black out of 125 campuses, now with far fewer schools, six are less than 80%.

Most devastatingly, the district was 92% African-American before Katrina and is now 85% African-American, in spite of some significant demographic changes in the city. Tellingly, private and parochial schools enroll a majority of the city’s white students. Parents simply did not buy the charter’s claim and elect more diverse schools. They continued to self-segregate. This is not a surprising pattern, but more the norm. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, according to the Times-Picayune, has repeatedly found that charter schools are “generally more segregated than public schools.” Penn State researchers have found that black and Latino students “tended to move into charter schools that were more racially isolated than the public schools they left.”

Charters still seem mainly about privatization and imposed ideology. The notion that they increase diversity based on income and race seems to just be a cover story, and is certainly not proven out in New Orleans or other cities to date.

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Please enjoy Shelly Fairchild’s Mississippi Turnpike. Thanks to KABF.

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