Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Charter School Paradox in New Orleans: Too Big To Fail

 Notwithstanding the great public relations machine that the charter school movement uses, scholars continue to debate the role of charter schools in the United States. Research suggests that charter schools are more segregated than traditional public schools, do not typically outperform traditional public schools in terms of academics and have a slew of issues in terms of financial accountability. Why, then, are charter schools achieving such popularity within minority populations? It’s mind-boggling! Let us be clear about one thing: the charter school experiment in New Orleans must work! The charter school movement must not only work in the superficial assessments created by and advanced by the state of Louisiana, through the state’s Department of Education and Recovery School District. The charter school movement in New Orleans must succeed on all levels. The state of Louisiana continues to report gains in student achievement on state assessments while the state continues to falter in national assessments. This is reason enough to be a skeptic of the charter school movement’s stated role in the advancement of student achievement in New Orleans’ public schools, but tales of charter school success in Louisiana, and chiefly in predominately Black and poor New Orleans, are suspicious for a variety of other reasons. The School Performance Scores for Louisiana’s public schools are comprised mainly of scores on state assessments. The scores do not contemplate or give enough attention to other important areas of student achievement, such as graduation rates, dropout rates, attendance rates, suspension rates, expulsion rates, enrollment in special education and gifted programs, matriculation and completion of college, or any of many other academic indicators that are potentially more compelling and important assessments of student achievement and equity for Black students. We know these areas are critical to the assessment of student achievement for Black students. In the most glaring recent example, a 15-year old student was shot in killed on the streets of New Orleans. It is beyond reasonable to correlate the amount of time a student spends out of school (for suspension, expulsion or general absenteeism) to the number of opportunities that these youths have to be involved in these deadly encounters as well as encounters with the police. To not make these connections, is foolhardy and ignorant, at best. In the words of a close friend and colleague, “Dead kids can’t take tests.” This comment is dead on (no pun intended) because New Orleans has led the nation in murder rate nearly half of all years over the last 25 years. The reality is much more bleak for young, Black males. Murder victims over this time were almost exclusive Black and male. Furthermore, nearly 55% of the murder victims were under the age of 30, with close to a fifth being school aged. The reality is that our schools must be more than testing zones. They have to be providers of hope, saviors of the city; they must be transformative. For these reasons, I am openly critical of assertions that student achievement is trending upward in the New Orleans Public Schools. I am even more skeptical of the attestations that the charter school movement is responsible for the growth in student achievement in New Orleans. In the words of my advisor during my time at Penn State, “I don’t think your data can support these claims.” Charter schools – at least in New Orleans – are outrageously secretive although they operate with public funding. It is nearly impossible for educational researchers, especially those already pigeonholed as anti-charter, to gain access to the statistics needed to adequately measure the effect of charter schools on New Orleans’ predominately (and almost exclusively) Black student population. Herein lies the problem and greatest barrier to moving the agenda from school improvement to the creation of transformative schools.
Despite these problems with charter schools, it is beyond time to reassess our loyalties and disloyalties to the charter school movement in New Orleans. For some time, I have agreed with my middle-class, liberal White friends; the charter school movement will collapse on its own. The model is simply not sustainable. This, however, comes from a place of privilege. We can stand by idly because we are not direct stakeholders in this matter. Although I am a graduate and former employee of the New Orleans Public Schools, I have no children in the New Orleans Public Schools. Furthermore, if things get too terrible in New Orleans, I can relocate with relative ease. My position as a professor allows me to work from various locations and at varying times: to be honest, even the distant commute to neighboring Mississippi would not be too much to overcome in my line of work. My friends have the resources to send their children to private schools. Of course, New Orleans leads the nation in the percentage of students enrolled in private schools. The Archdiocese of New Orleans estimates that a whopping 44,000 students are enrolled in its schools in New Orleans! The New Orleans area has a unique history of flight from public schools, which includes White flight to the suburbs and middle-class Black flight to private schools. Needless to say, there is a large degree of disinvestment and distrust in the public schools of New Orleans. My friends do not particularly need the public school system; they are more than capable of affording the cost of the elite private schools in the New Orleans area. Charter schools were supposed to fix this. Charter schools were supposed to result in better performing public schools with more attention to equity. Instead, charter schools have resulted in the population of New Orleans sharply divided. Some parents endorse the charter school movement (of course, anything beats the old New Orleans Public Schools) while other parents complain that the charter school movement has ripped away Black parents’ stronghold on education policy and politics. My research into charter school board demographics supports the latter view: Whites dominate membership on appointed charter school boards in the all charter district, leaving Black parents virtually powerless in education policy and politics. Parents have fought for the rights to their schools but have been generally unsuccessful. Of course, parents of students in schools managed by the popularly-elected Orleans Parish School Board do not have these problems. These parents send their children to schools with a majority Black school board. The popularly-elected school board is severely limited in its reach because the majority of schools in New Orleans are managed by predominately White appointed charter school boards.
There is a brutal reality overlooked in the charter school debate in New Orleans; if our charter schools fail, then we fail our children. For the sake of a generation and our future, we must save the charter school movement in New Orleans. The charter school ship has sailed in New Orleans, and we must see that the ship reaches a pleasant destination at all costs. Both sides will have to lay down their arms. Charter schools must become open to honest and impartial criticisms that are aimed at improving the reform movement to make it more equitable in achieving its stated goals of quality education for all students. Charter schools may start this process through the sharing of data that will enable educational researchers to better gauge the successes and failures of the charter school movement. Opponents of the charter school movement must make concerted efforts to identify, research and promote the reforms that are working equitably. There are examples of attempts at equitable reforms in New Orleans. We need not create a false dichotomy: the charter school movement can coexist with movements towards greater educational equity. To their credit, charter schools have been successful at converting low-performing schools into mediocre schools. This is, admittedly, though less than equitable means in some cases.

Where do we go from here, though? What does reform 2.0 look like for New Orleans? Can we get mediocre schools to become exceptional schools? Through concerted collaboration, inclusive policymaking and equity-based actions, we can save the charter school movement while saving the education of an entire generation of students. The challenge is no longer to raise test scores; we must now alter lives!

by Steven Nelson

Steven Nelson is a visiting assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of New Orleans

The Forum on the Future of Public Education strives to bring the best empirical evidence to policymakers and the public. The Forum draws on a network of premier scholars to create, interpret, and disseminate credible information on key questions facing P-20 education.