New Orleans Call it what you may, charterization, privatization, or whatever the opposition of business and other elites to the public education system in the United States has gotten the kind of superficial analysis normally reserved for fashion trends and fall season television shows. The basic analysis is contentious and conducted at the high decibels of yelling voices arguing either that public schools suck, teachers are worthless and greedy, unions are obstacles, or on the other side that schools are suffering from inadequate funding, poor physical plants, and systemic racism that is abandoning many urban districts.
All of which made it a relief to finally see a sober, factual analysis of the largest charter school system experiment in the country that New Orleans has been subjected to in the wake of the post-Katrina takeover of the schools by Andrea Gabor, a professor at Baruch College of the City University of New York published in the New York Times.
Looking at the Recovery School District, as the charter takeover schools were called, Gabor finds that this so-called experiment has meant that the “reforms have come at the expense of the city’s most disadvantaged children, who often disappear from school entirely and, thus, are no longer included in the data.” Plain English: the charters only look good because they have been allowed to “cook the books.” Gabor quotes one of the few black charter-school leaders in the city saying, “There were pretty nefarious things done in the pursuit of academic gain” including “suspensions, pushouts, skimming, counseling out, and not handling special needs kids well.” This is the inevitable result of a system designed to teach to the test to survive. If you aren’t willing or able to educate the children, then get rid of them so that they don’t count against you in the scoring.
What’s going on? Gabor documents the following:
· After schools are taken over by charters, less than a third of the students in the previous school are enrolling.
· “In the decentralized charter system, no agency is responsible for keeping track of all kids,” meaning dropout rates are unreliable. An outside agency using Census Data from 2013, “found that over 26000 people in the metropolitan area between the ages of 16 and 24 are counted as ‘disconnected,’ because neither working or in school.”
· Takeover schools that were rated “F” as falling once charterized become “T” for turnaround, and thus are not counted as “failing,” “nor would 16 “D” schools. In fact “40 percent of RSD schools were graded ‘D,’ ‘T’ or ‘F’” in 2013-14.
· Most of charter performance have been “doled out selectively, mostly to pro-charter researchers, and much of the research has been flawed.” She cites a humiliating incident last year when the Cowen Institute had to retract a study claiming that “most New Orleans charters were posting higher-than-expected graduation rates and test scores.” Cowen had been the former head of Tulane University and unabashedly a charter cheerleader, including putting a million of Tulane’s money in a post-Katrina charter that would give preference to the children of professors and employees.
· A Stanford University center claimed progress with a flawed methodology that compared charter school performance to a supposed “twin,” even though there are no non-charter schools in New Orleans now.
· African-American educators argue that “the charter movement won’t have ‘any type of long-term sustainability’ without meaningful participation from the black community,” which in New Orleans is 60% of the city.
It goes on and on, but Gabor’s bottom line is worth remembering:
“For outsiders, the biggest lesson in New Orleans is this: It is wiser to invest in improving existing education systems than to start from scratch. Privatization may improve outcomes for most students, but it has hurt the most disadvantaged pupils”
In a city like New Orleans and many other urban districts throughout the country, the public school system is populated with “disadvantaged pupils” and minorities. Time to stop proselytizing and start educating.