New Orleans charter school model should not be adopted
Kristen Buras, Raynard Sanders, Karran Harper Royal
“New Opportunities for Milwaukee,” a policy proposal by Senator Alberta Darling and Representative Dale Kooyenga, has caused quite a stir in Wisconsin. It draws inspiration from the state-run Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans, the nation’s largest all-charter school district. Those of us in New Orleans, who have lived through and studied the past decade of education reform, do not feel inspired. We urge Wisconsin’s citizens to look closely at the facts in New Orleans before proceeding with any plan.
The “New Opportunities” proposal states that “the success of charter schools is apparent across the country.” The reality is that RSD-New Orleans charter schools are a dismal failure. Data indicating an upward trajectory in performance has been legislatively contrived or created by the Louisiana Department of Education’s manipulation. Not long after Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana state legislature raised the standard used to judge New Orleans’ traditional public schools as failing, justifying the takeover. It then reversed course and lowered the standard used to judge the city’s charter schools, the majority of which are rated C, D, and F. In fact, only 4 RSD schools were above the state average in 2014, the standard used to take over New Orleans public schools.
Further, the “New Opportunities” proposal asserts that the high school graduation rate in New Orleans was 54 percent before Katrina and 78 percent in 2013. Actually, the graduation rate in RSD-New Orleans is below 60 percent. The 78 percent figure is the result of averaging the high-performing schools under control of the Orleans Parish School Board, ones that were high performing prior to the charter experiment and have a graduation rate above 90 percent, with low-performing schools in RSD-New Orleans; high performing schools weigh more heavily now because the student population is smaller overall. It also has been discovered that several charter high schools in the RSD improperly coded students leaving the school, raising concerns about the validity of the graduation and dropout rates reported by the RSD.
In addition, charter schools in the RSD have a record of pushing students who require additional support and resources out of school. Some have suspension and expulsion rates that are ten times the national average. The situation became so dire that the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that the city’s schools, most of them charters, had failed either to admit or appropriately serve 4,500 children with disabilities. As a part of a settlement decision a consent decree was announced early this year and an independent monitor will oversee charters for compliance. In light of such dynamics, it would be dangerous to allow unbridled autonomy for private operators, who are often more concerned about the financial bottom line than children’s rights to learn.
Finally, “New Opportunities” says that such proposals “will not cost any taxpayer, at any level of government, a single cent.” Based on actual experience in New Orleans, we have paid many costs—economic, political, and cultural. For example, when 7,500 veteran teachers and public school employees were fired en masse after Katrina, health insurance rates doubled and in some cases tripled for retirees. The state legislature had to provide funds to stabilize the blow. Most charter operators hired inexperienced, transient replacements provided by businesses such as Teach for America and opted not to participate in the state retirement system, thereby further weakening it.
The New Orleans model of privately managed charter schools and new teacher recruitment will not present Milwaukee’s children with opportunities. Rather, it will create new opportunities for profiteers to advance their own interests as they pursue public education dollars.