Charter Schools Continue to Resist Accountability and Transparency

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New Orleans    New Orleans is widely considered the vanguard of the charter school movement.  Since the usurpation of the school system by the state in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, charter schools of all shapes, sizes, and varieties have been the norm.  It’s hard to tell in most ways how this grand experiment is working out, because the schools proudly flaunt the fact that they have complete autonomy.  The only schools where citizens as voters and taxpayers have any real voice are the schools, including some charters, are under the authority of the elected Orleans Parish Public Schools and its board.

My head was hurting this morning at the contradictions and painful ironies involved in this cavalier and undemocratic parading of school autocracy.

On one hand, The Times-Picayune reported at a recent conference  that Caroline Roemer, the head of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, “challenged New Orleans residents to attend charter school board meetings” and admitted that there is “a total lack of public engagement.”  With handpicked boards and principals acting as little czars with royal entitlements outside of the citizen control, I wonder what she might expect.  Later, “she acknowledged, however, that some meetings occur in the middle of workdays, when many parents are unable to attend…” A reporter for the on-line Lens, Jessica Williams, admitted at the same conference that “there has been a lack of transparency in some cases about when the boards meet.”  In fact Williams could have added that some of the charter boards have been surprised to find that their board meetings were covered under the Louisiana “open meetings” act and therefore required to be open to the public, which the Lens has acknowledged in the past in its presentations and reporting.

On the other hand, the Lens ran a piece by Williams this week on the number of charters that are now eligible to return to public control under the taxpaying, voters of Orleans Parish.  Bizarrely, the whole tilt of the story was neither on their unaccountability, though that was mentioned repeatedly and flaunted in numerous quotes, nor their financial lack of sustainability, but on the nickels and pennies comparison of the compliance costs on federal grants between their own shops and the Orleans Parish Public School System.  Huh?!?  Yes, the charters can get federal grants directly and the state per capita assessment, but they have no access to the bonding authority attached to the small things like voter approvals of millage rates which are still required under our system of marginally democratic governance.  There is no part of the Louisiana state budget, including education that is not being cut by Governor Bobby Jindal and there are no permanent entitlements to special federal funds at the national level.  The purse strings are in the hand of the voters of Orleans Parish, and, like it or not, eventually all of these myopic and exclusive charter operations are going to have to come back to accountability.  The irony that Williams could report on some of their quotes about the “messiness” of real public board meetings where people have something to say, as opposed to their own quiet club meetings and their opinion of the public schools bond rating, when they have no rating whatsoever, is simply startling.

Equally startling to me was reading a report from A Community Voice (formerly Louisiana ACORN) this week on a candidate forum for voters in the 9th Ward where I live.  It turns out that even as I go to vote for a school board member from my district to the Board, I need to understand that there are literally NO PUBLIC SCHOOLS under the Orleans School Board’s jurisdiction in the entire 8th Ward or it seems in the area covered by my school board representative for the 9th Ward.  There is one public school in eastern New Orleans which is part of the huge 9th Ward, but I think that’s under another school district.

Hard to tell, because it seems no one really has the new maps for the school district.  ACV wrote to the Lens to see if they knew the district maps.  They politely answered, sending a map, and asking if these were the new boundaries.  They were not.  Give them some credit though, because ACV also wrote to the Picayune’s education reporter, Andrew Vanacore, who simply didn’t respond, either because he also doesn’t know or maybe doesn’t care.  Who knows?

But, at least there are districts and there will be a vote, so sooner or later, we will know the answers to these questions.  Furthermore, even if my elected school board member doesn’t currently have any schools in her district, at least she can speak and vote and advocate for public schools to come back to my area of the city.  Charters on the other hand are all citywide so there is no such thing really as a neighborhood school per se because students can come from anywhere essentially within New Orleans.  Unclear how the public, even if the meetings were transparent and conveniently scheduled, would ever have a chance at impacting on these slippery creatures cavorting on their own separate slopes.