New Orleans Corporate Education Reform 101

New Orleans Corporate Education Reform 101

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

By Raynard Sanders, Ed.D. | Originally Published at EmpathyEducates. March 30, 2015

The 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 of Hurricane Katrina and more than willing elected officials, New Orleans quickly became the national poster child for privatizing public education. In that most of these changes happened within months after Katrina, there was little or no local resistance. More than 80% of the population had been evacuated from the city. In light of that, the corporate education reforms in New Orleans has been in the raw so to be speak as charter school proponents were able to create a perfect environment for turning public schools into profit centers. This unique situation attracted billions of dollars from the Louisiana Legislature, the federal government, and foundations promoting the privatization of public education. Thanks to a supportive national media 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 schools 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 practices, as reported by external researchers, universities and journalists, has gotten limited coverage in the mainstream media.

The drastic changes in the public education landscape post Hurricane Katrina, despite its dismal failure, offers invaluable lessons for cities across the country. These lessons are not only important for cities and communities considering implementing the New Orleans failed corporate reform model but also it proved that the business model approach to improving public education as touted for years by noted public school privateer Milton Friedman and others doesn’t work. For the past nine years New Orleans had all the conditions that Freidman and others said was needed to improve public education; schools managed by private boards with no interference from an elected school board, no teacher union contract, young smart and intelligent teachers (as all the teachers in New Orleans were fired after Hurricane Katrina) and school choice where parents could chose a school which is best fits their child’s 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.

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; plummeting test scores while resurrected equity and access issues affecting mostly poor and minority students. Below are a few of the major problems with the corporate reforms that proponents will never say as they travel across the country promoting the unsuccessful schools they have created:

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

In Louisiana the definition of a failing school changes at least once every two years post Hurricane Katrina. Thus creating an environment where schools suddenly become failing schools, opening the door for a charter operator to move in a take over the school.

The take over of the schools in New Orleans was initiated when the Louisiana Legislature passed legislation which raised the standards for determining a failing school and removed other qualifying conditions, however this legislation was crafted only for public schools in New Orleans. This legislation immediately affected most of the schools in New Orleans; in that they were suddenly being judged by new standards. With that 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. Meanwhile state officials and charter proponents told that nation that all the schools were failing. In passing this discriminatory legislation the state took over 107 of 123 schools. If New Orleans would have been judged by the standards that all other school districts in Louisiana were judged, possibly four to six schools were eligible for state take over at the time of Hurricane Katrina.

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 to take over schools in November 2005.

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

A state education board of eleven members, which has only two members from New Orleans, is making all decisions regarding public education in New Orleans. This state education board has selected the Recovery School District’s 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 publicly 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 political leaders.

Public schools are turned over to charter board that has unquestionable authority.

Groups or individuals with no education experience are commonly awarded contracts to run charter boards in New Orleans. These charter school boards sign a contract with the state to provide public education. Unlike like other contracts to vendors to provide a public service, which require specific experience and capabilities, the contracts for charter schools have no such criteria. Charter school contracts have been awarded to individuals with no experience and/or shady experience in running schools. The charter boards are usually selected by an individual who submitted the charter application who in turn appoints himself. 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 community of the school they managed. This practice is also not uncommon for a charter school board with a majority of white board members to oversee a largely African-American student population.

These charter boards act like private entities not following state sunshine laws, with no connection or concern for parents and the community needs. State education officials give these charter operators unquestionable accountability and 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 that school district superintendents in Louisiana, while eliminating social workers, counselors and librarians and extra curricular activities. There have been cases where charter board members have personally taken foundation grant monies that were given to improve the schools they manage.

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

Despite the overwhelming research that trained and experienced teachers are needed to provide quality education experiences, most charter school operators opt for young untrained recent graduates. Most charter school operators hired a majority of Teach for America candidates, while many are well intended; they are not prepared for the job. Thus 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 administrator’s, and generally ascend to the principal position after two to three years of teaching and are former Teach for America teachers. 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 by and large 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, which gives them the right to teach who they want and how they want. After several years of unsuccessfully working with state officials 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% of RSD students with disabilities exit with a high school diploma, while across the state, the average is 19.4%.
  • In the 2008-2009 school year, RSD schools suspended nearly 30% of all students with disabilities — a rate that is 63% higher than the state average.
  • During the 2007-08 school year, 94.6% of eighth grade RSD students with disabilities failed the Louisiana Educational Assessment (LEAP) exam. For the same year, 78.3% of all eighth grade charter school students with disabilities failed the LEAP.
  • On average, school districts throughout Louisiana have identified 12.2% of their students as eligible for special education services. New Orleans Public Schools have identified only 8% of their students as eligible for special education services. Comparable school districts throughout the country identify almost twice as many students with disabilities.

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 Degree, calls for a special monitor to oversee the long overdue changes that forces 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 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 Louisiana Legislative Auditor which have included; fiscal mismanagement of federal, state and local funds, not following state and federal policy in its contractor procedures, not following state human resource policies and recently was 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 taxpayers’ dollars and policies and are quick to recommend changes. Pre 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 literary a “free market” in New Orleans for the Recovery School District and its charter schools without any oversight as 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 the reporting gives directions educator’s guidance for improvement. It is also common practice of creditable academic institutions to share information with researchers, universities, and graduate students. This helps us understand what works and shapes educational policy.

In Louisiana state education officials have taken the unusual approach to limit information of the state mandated test results to the public, while giving 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 suit 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? Any other creditable state department of education or academic institution would be happy to share details of their great progress. Not sharing this public information raises serious questions about their claims of success and shows their lack of academic integrity.

State education officials and corporate reformers have spent millions of dollars creating a narrative claiming unprecedented success about the education reforms in New Orleans. It is well crafted and is selling itself to school districts around the country as instant successes and the final solution in turning failing schools. Hopefully folks considering the New Orleans model will look beyond the bells and whistles.

Raynard Sanders, Ed.D has over thirty years of experience in teaching, educational administration, and economic and community development. As a principal of a New Orleans high school, he developed the first high school DNA lab in the state of Louisiana and created the Creole Cottage Project, an innovative program for his students to build and renovate houses in the school’s community.

Dr. Sanders also served as the Executive Director of The National Faculty at New Orleans, a professional development agency designed to improve the quality of teaching in poor performing schools throughout the Mississippi Delta. He also served as the Director of the Urban Education Graduate Program at Southern University at New Orleans. | Please join Raynard Sanders on-air, on The New Orleans Imperative Education conversation

The New Orleans Imperative Hosted by Dr. Raynard Sanders

This piece was reprinted by EmpathyEducates with permission or license. We thank the Author, Raynard Sanders, Ed.D. for his kindness, observations, research and for the invitation to discuss what it means to have a “free market “education.


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