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 A proposal to turn over the last five non-charter schools to a newly minted charter operator was suddenly withdrawn, preventing the system from now being 100% charterized.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.