What they won’t tell you about the education reforms in New Orleans?

iStock_000009920765XSmallThe corporate education reforms in New Orleans have been touted as the national guide for turning around urban school districts. As a result of the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina and more than willing elected officials, New Orleans quickly became the national poster child for privatizing public education. Because most of these changes happened in the months after Katrina, there was little or no local resistance with more than 80 percent of the population evacuated from the city. Charter school proponents were able to take advantage of the perfect opportunity to turn public schools into profit centers. This unique situation attracted billions of dollars from the state legislature, the federal government and foundations promoting the privatization of public education.

Thanks to a supportive national media and others in positions of power, the narrative of the corporate education reforms in New Orleans immediately hit print media, television and Internet claiming unprecedented academic success predicated on school choice. Of course these media outlets were repeating the story told by state education officials and charter school proponents labeling the reforms in New Orleans as a “miracle”. With that, cities and states across the country are now looking at the reforms in New Orleans as guides to improve their failing public schools.

However, the real story of chronic academic failure, fiscal mismanagement and inequitable practice as reported by external researchers, universities and journalists have received limited coverage in the mainstream media.

The drastic changes in the public education landscape since Hurricane Katrina, despite its dismal failure, offer invaluable lessons for cities across the country. These lessons are not only important for cities and communities considering implementing the failed corporate reform model tested in New Orleans, but they also prove that the business model approach to improving public education as touted for years by noted Chicago-based public school privateer Milton Friedman does not. For the past nine years, New Orleans had all the conditions that Freidman and others said were needed to improve public education; schools managed by private boards with no interference from an elected school board, no teacher union contract, young, smart teachers (remember all the veteran teachers in New Orleans were fired after Hurricane Katrina) and school choice where parents could choose a school that best fits their child needs and not be forced to go to those failing neighborhood schools. Additionally, in New Orleans charter operators received unprecedented funding, which for several years has been more than three times the funding of other school districts in Louisiana post Hurricane Katrina.

With enormous financial backing, corporate school reform is spreading across the country like wild fire. It comes to communities like a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Before communities realize it, corporate education reformers have taken over their public schools. Below are a few of the major problems with the corporate reforms that proponents will never disclose as they travel across the country promoting the unsuccessful schools they have created:

School ratings, which determine a school’s passing or failing status, is a moving target.

In Louisiana, the definition of a failing school has changed at least once every two years since Hurricane Katrina—creating an environment where schools suddenly are labeled “failing” schools and opening the door for a charter operator to move in a take over the school. The takeover of schools in New Orleans was initiated when the state legislature passed legislation that raised the standards for determining a failing school and removed other qualifying conditions. The legislation was crafted in such a way that it applied only to public schools in New Orleans and immediately affected most of the schools in the city. In fact, dozens of schools that were cited for progress and given accolades for academic achievement in May of 2005 suddenly became failing schools in November 2005. Supported by the very lawmakers elected to represent the people of New Orleans, this discriminatory legislation the state took over 107 of 123 schools. Since then the academic standard policy for taking over schools has changed several times and today it is lower than it was in 2005. To date—almost ten years later—only four charter schools managed by the Recovery School District have met the academic standard that was set by the state education department in November 2005.

The public is completely taken out of the decision making process of public education.

A state education board of 11 members, which has only two members from New Orleans, is making all decisions regarding public education in New Orleans for schools under the control of the Recovery School District. This state education board selects the RSD superintendent who oversees the 107 public schools in New Orleans with no public input. The state education board makes all decisions regarding the closing of neighborhood schools and selection of charter operators. This board also makes all budgetary decisions for schools in New Orleans, without public publicizing the budget to the citizens of New Orleans and there is no public review or opportunity for local comment.

This is clearly taxation without representation, which seems to be acceptable with the local, state and national political leaders.

Public schools are turned over to charter boards that have unquestionable authority.

There is no mandate from the state to have elected charter boards or to appoint parents or community members. It is not uncommon for charter school boards to be comprised of members who are not from the school community of the school they managed. It is also not uncommon for a charter school board with a majority of white board members overseeing largely an African-American student population. These charter boards act like private entities, and state education officials rarely intercede in their operations regardless of complaints from parents or violation of state and federal policy. Most of the charter boards pay extremely high administrative salaries with several administrators in a school making more than school district superintendents in Louisiana, while eliminating social workers counselors and librarians and extracurricular activities. There have been cases where charter board members have personally taken grant monies from foundations to improve the schools they manage.

Charter schools are encouraged to hire untrained and inexperienced teachers instead of experienced, certified teachers.

Despite overwhelming research that indicates the impact that trained and experience teachers have on the quality of a student’s education experience, most charter school operators opt for young, untrained recent graduates, with many hiring recruits through Teach for America. While many of these young people have good intentions; they are not prepared for the job. But charter boards decrease their overhead and increase their bottom line at the expense of children’s education. Additionally many of the charter schools are led by principals who are untrained as administrators and generally ascend to the principal position after two to three years of teaching. When you include the lack of experience in the principal’s office and the classroom, it is no surprise that most of the charter schools in New Orleans are rated either “D” or “F” with high schools in New Orleans having the lowest ACT average score in the state of Louisiana for the second year in a row.

It should be noted that the few schools in New Orleans that are posting high test scores are largely staffed with certified teachers and administrators.

Charter schools were allowed to violate federal and state policy by denying admission and/or services to special needs students.

Despite hundreds of complaints from parents and education advocates about the refusal of charter schools to admit and/or serve special-needs students over the years, state officials refused to intervene and mandate charter schools to follow state and federal policy. Charter schools in New Orleans have been given unquestionable autonomy, including the right to teach who they want and how they want. After several years of unsuccessfully working with state officials to force these schools to follow the law, a class-action lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010. The complaints over the years were horrific as noted in a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010:

• The graduation rate for RSD students with disabilities is less than half of the overall graduation rate.
• Only 6.8 percent of RSD students with disabilities exit with a high school diploma. The state average is 19.4 percent.
• In the 2008-2009 school year, RSD schools suspended nearly 30 percent of all students with disabilities — a rate that is 63 percent higher than the state average.
• During the 2007-08 school year, 94.6 percent of eighth grade RSD students with disabilities failed the Louisiana Educational Assessment (LEAP) exam. For the same year, 78.3 percent of all eighth grade charter school students with disabilities failed the LEAP.

In February 2015, just prior to going to court, state education officials finally agreed to a settlement. The landmark settlement which has been lauded by parents and advocates as a consent decree calls for a special monitor to oversee the long overdue changes that force charter schools and state officials to adhere to state and federal policy.

Accountability and ethical behavior in public schools no longer exists.

Despite numerous reports of fiscal mismanagement by the state’s Recovery School District, which manages most of the charter schools in New Orleans, the mainstream media and government watchdog groups have largely ignored gross fiscal mismanagement. Since 2008 the Recovery School District has received numerous scathing reports by the state’s legislative auditor, including reports of fiscal mismanagement of federal, state and local funds, not following state and federal policy in its contractor procedures, and not following state human resource policies. The RSD has also been repeatedly cited for not being able to account for millions of dollars in property. While this fiscal irresponsibility involves millions of dollars in local and state tax dollars, the traditional government watchdog groups haven’t said a word. Usually these groups, specifically the Bureau of Governmental Research and the local Inspector General’s office closely watch taxpayer’s dollars and policies and are quick to condemn and recommend changes. Before Hurricane Katrina when the Orleans Parish School Board had more than its share of fiscal mismanagement the Bureau of Governmental Research attended every school board meeting and led the charge in demanding fiscal accountability. This selective accountability brings to question their professional integrity given the gross mismanagement of taxpayer’s dollars.

It is literally a “free market” in New Orleans for the Recovery School District and its charter schools. Without any oversight, our public schools have become huge financial opportunities for the private sector.

State education officials annually mislead the public about the academic progress

Academic integrity is a fundamental value and characteristic of academic institutions and state education agencies. The accurate reporting of test scores and other data is an open and transparent process that informs parents, policymakers and the public of the progress of our schools. More importantly, they give educator’s guidance for improvement. It is also common practice of creditable academic institutions to share information with researchers, universities, graduate students this helps us understand what works and shapes educational policy.

In Louisiana, state education officials have taken the unusual approach of limiting information of the state-mandated test results to the public while giving a glowing analysis of progress, touting the success of the corporate education reforms. When public information requests are made to state officials they usually refuse the request ignoring state and federal law around the Freedom of Information Act. They have, however, given test data to selected individuals and organizations, most of which have a contractual relationship with the state department of education. In that agreement, these groups and individuals are obligated to share all information with state officials before publishing any analysis or reports on Louisiana test scores. Other researchers across the state have had to sue the Louisiana State Department of Education to get data, which by law are public documents.

If the test scores in Louisiana are so good, why are state officials refusing to share the data? Not sharing this public information raises serious questions about their claims of success. Instead of sharing the real and raw data, state education officials and corporate reformers have spent millions of dollars creating a narrative claiming unprecedented success of the education reforms in New Orleans. Hopefully, folks considering the New Orleans model will look beyond the bells and whistles.

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