Privilege and Politics in School Funding Formulas

photo-originalNew Orleans    In the time of tight public budgets at every level in the uneven recovery from the recession, especially in distressed communities, little is more contentious than the funding formula and the allocation of scarce resources in public schools. There may be few areas in the country where the issue is more weighted than in New Orleans the home of the largest charter school experiment in the country over the last decade, where there continues to be a split system with some schools under the elected board and some still managed by the state.

So, the State of Louisiana is broke as a joke. Not a funny joke, but one leaving the state and much of the educational system in wreck and ruin after the failed narcissism of former governor, Bobby Jindal. Now in the reckoning with reality, the two local New Orleans school systems have tried to work out a formula through the various superintendents and the committees that advise them composed of many of the school principals.

Truth to tell there have been a lot of problems with some of the charters. One of the more noxious has been the sleight of hand used by a number of the charters to steer special needs students anywhere possible as long as it was not their own classrooms. A class action suit brought by national and local civil rights organizations exposed this situation for the venality it represented, but also meant that any funding formula was going to have to do better in supporting special needs students if possible.

It was not a surprise that in the negotiations the often conflicting New Orleans-based school superintendents were able to come to an agreement on a formula, urged and ratified by their advisory committees, but equally unsurprising is the reallocation of funds as the state-based Recovery School District finally grips the reality of return to the Orleans Parish School System. Something was going to have to give, and that turned out to be the “gifted/talented” category. The funding in this category is set to drop under current discussions from $1295 per student down to $375 per pupil. The reductions will be phased in gradually with no school losing more than $170 per student on the average in the coming school year. Seems fair doesn’t it? In fact it was approved 10-1 by the committee. Other organizations from the Urban League to even the Louisiana Association of Charter Schools sent the state board letters of support. Nevertheless, the few schools that are magnet charters for the gifted have squealed like stuck pigs.

Partly that’s because both politics and money demands they play their parts. Politics because their public school student base and more importantly their parents includes people with more clout, louder voices, and deeper pockets than the average public school, so they have a shot that their pleadings might ease the pain. Money, because many of these schools are fundraising juggernauts with their own development staff, tax exempt organizations, and zealot, one-hundred-percent fundraiser parents. From the numbers I happen to hear from one school, Benjamin Franklin High School, they already privately raise more than $1 million to supplement the state and local funds. Though the development team and principal were moaning that they would lose 12% of their funding on their $10 million school budget over the years, they would only lose about $150,000 in this first year, and you get a feeling that is about the dollar amount you could put on whether or not “they protest too much.” The published paycheck for one of the other gifted schools is at the level that she could probably absorb the entire cut in the coming school year by lowering her pay to only $200,000 per year.

People see the schools as privileged, and there is no way to escape that label, since that is also the way the students and their parents see – and talk about — the experience, and why they are so generous in the private fundraising for the schools. Other principles accuse the gifted principals of “driving a smear campaign.” The Republican-sponsor of the bill in the legislature asks the hard question when the state’s pockets are empty: “The gifted-and-talented community gets a very large portion of the pie. And they don’t want to give it up. I don’t want to penalize one group over another, but there are limited funds. Do we take the funds away from the disabled and give them to the gifted?”

Funding fights are hardball, but this one is a good example of a time when it makes sense not to count the dollars, but the votes, and play the long game by learning more about grace, than grab.

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Euphemisms and Rationalizations are No Substitute for School Board Elections

 Patrick Dobard, right, lays out his plans for the Recovery School District upon taking the superintendent job in January 2012. He will appear at a Lens breakfast event next week. (Rusty Costanza, Times-Picayune archive)

Patrick Dobard, right, lays out his plans for the Recovery School District upon taking the superintendent job in January 2012. He will appear at a Lens breakfast event next week. (Rusty Costanza, Times-Picayune archive)

New Orleans  Years ago New Orleans and many parts of Louisiana were referred to by various observers as “banana republics,” meaning corrupt empires run by demagogues, contemptuous of their citizens and normal democratic process.  Some would argue those were just the days of Huey Long, Leander Perez, and their ilk, bigger and badder than life.   The one reason that these old school, fast walkers and slick talkers could prevail is that they could look you in the eye and say, in essence, count my votes at the election, I’m what the people want, you don’t like it, vote me out. 

            Listening to Patrick Dobard, the blazingly fast talking, quick witted Superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans, being interviewed by Jessica Williams of the Lens, the local on-line “newspaper,” I couldn’t help thinking that the real difference between then and now was that now the same tricksters didn’t believe anymore that they have to face the voters in an election.  From listening to him quickly run through various euphemisms, rationalizations, and contradictions, the basic message seemed to be that elections, democracy, and the rest of that hullabaloo was just not necessary by his lights because they knew best and cared about the children more, and that was his narrative and by god he was sticking with it.   There is a political philosophy defined by this kind of anti-democratic, authoritarian transfer of governance and power to the state, called fascism, but though that might technically define the situation, it doesn’t help to solve this problem, so I’ll just let that pass.

            Repeatedly asked by Williams and various parents and others from the audience why the community’s voice had been silenced and their participation avoided and vetoed, his answers ran the gamut.  He believed there was “more accountability” now than under an elected school board.  He just about made me swear off ever using the phrase “civic engagement” again, by arguing that an informal, every once-in-awhile solicitation of input from parents and community was somehow superior to appropriate, democratic governance.  Input is neither influence nor power, but that goes without saying.

            Here’s the situation.  In the turbulence of Katrina eight and a half years ago, control of the majority of the public schools in New Orleans were usurped by the state into the Recovery School District, and despite Superintendent Dobard’s vehement denials, this seizure was always promised to be temporary until schools were back in shipshape.  The original period was five years, but now eight years later no schools have returned to the jurisdiction of the elected school board and voter control.  Dobard claims he, RSD, and the state are neutral on these questions, but his oft repeated watchwords for school success always started with the word “autonomy,” and no one needs a Webster’s to understand that if they are promising charters “autonomy” that means that it’s their way or the highway without messing with those nasty voters and taxpayers out there.

            Dobard works for the Department of Education, a state agency, and it’s governed, if at all, by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (B.E.S.E), which elects one member from the New Orleans area and the rest statewide.  In the traditional north-south split in Louisiana and time honored state versus New Orleans politics, there’s no pretense of local control of the schools, nor does Dobard seem to believe that’s even a good idea.  In the short hour, his ideology was contradicted by himself or others numerous times but he stubbornly hewed to his message.  At one point he took indirect credit for pushing out Steve Barr and his controversial Future is Now Schools from local McDonough High School, but later changed sails and claimed it was about the condition of the building even while denying to one questioner that there was any problem with the building.  His claims of great community and parental input similarly came crashing down as a member of the McDonough advisory committee asked why they were not informed by BESE, the state, him or the RSD about the school being closed for reconstruction.  Needless to say, there was no answer to that question.

            The Lens reporter asked about how he could argue there was so much accountability and openness from the local charter school boards when they were constantly closing meetings that were public by law, and his run around answer was a marathon that ended nowhere.  The obvious question not asked was how Dobard or anyone could claim that with unelected, self-appointed charter school boards, there could be any semblance of claims to honest representation, much less democratic norms.  Autonomy first and foremost, might have been his honest answer, and parents and New Orleans citizens take the hindmost would have been the obvious reality.

            The only certainty I felt after an hour of listening to one rationalization and euphemism after another was the fact that clearly no charter schools under the thumb of the Recovery School District in New Orleans teach civics anymore.  In my day the one lesson I learned well in civics classes in New Orleans public schools at F. W. Gregory Junior High School and Benjamin Franklin High School was that democracy matters and was even worth fighting for in fact.  Dobard and the RSD seem to not teach that anymore, and nor, tragically, do they even seem to believe in it.

 

 

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