The national media consensus is that New Orleans has discovered the miracle cure for urban education. Their conclusion is largely drawn from data provided by the Louisiana Department of Education, which obviously has a vested interest in emphasizing the good and ignoring the bad in the post-Katrina education changes. New Orleans is important in the national education debate, but not for the reasons we commonly hear; it is important because it is the beachhead for a national movement to remove schools from local democratic control and accountability. The privatization trade-off is that the public sacrifices control of schools for a privatized system that delivers better education for the same tax dollar. While the citizens of New Orleans certainly lost control of their schools, it cannot be said that they have received a better education, if that also means an equitable education, nor can it be said that it came at the same cost.
The corporate education forces that advocate a free-market business model have developed a “beachhead” strategy in New Orleans. Taking advantage of the evacuation of 90% of the population after Katrina, they set in motion educational changes that bypassed the elected school board and destroyed virtually all local democracy and accountability. They hoped to use New Orleans as a showcase for a model school system they could imposed throughout the nation; one based on privatizing public schools into charter schools and shifting dependence from veteran teachers to temporary and inexperienced Teach For America (TFA) recruits.
At the heart of the beachhead strategy was a quiet policy of subsidizing select charter schools to provide them with additional instructional resources and incentives to ensure increases in high-stakes test scores. But the flaw in the subsidy system was that the showcase model “successful schools” could not possibly be replicated on existing revenues throughout the district let alone throughout the nation. The corporations and foundations had only enough funds to bankroll a display system in one city—not in 50,000 schools nationwide.
From the outside, it appeared that the charters and TFA have “done more with less” when in fact—if they did more at all—it was through massive subsidies from the state, corporations, and foundations, all largely concealed from the public.
The funds to prop up test scores at all the state-controlled schools and charters rolled in by the millions after the state takeover of most of New Orleans schools. In a state that never spent much on public education, suddenly the takeover superintendent was given a blank check; he promptly doubled the expenditure per student. Teacher salaries were increased 50% in three years; the Broad foundation gave one KIPP school $150,000 to pay students up to $50 a week to behave (it worked: Angelina Jolie toured the school and remarked on how well behaved the students were). One charter school spent twice per pupil as the state funding formula by using corporate and foundation subsides. In-kind subsidies flowed into the charters: AmeriCorps volunteers were used as teachers although they were classified as tutors; Konica-Minolta annually handed out $180,000 in private high school scholarships at one KIPP school ensuring that it would attract hundreds of applicants to cherry-pick from; Bill Gates made a $3 million grant to plan charters and train charter CEOs and the U.S. Department of Education recently awarded $33.6 million to develop more charter schools in Louisiana
The outcome was a handful of showcase charter schools that the corporate reform advocates market as the norm. It was crucial for the corporate education reformers that New Orleans school privatization appear to succeed at all costs. Still, a dual school system emerged of privileged charters for a few and the vast majority of students in struggling schools. The new education system was like a Ponzi scheme: great profits were returned to a few at first, but in the end, the architects of the system could not sustain the flow of benefits to the majority. This month the state released a new grading system that gave a “D” or “F” to 83% of the state-controlled schools in New Orleans.
Why would Gates and Broad and Duncan promote a deeply flawed and unequal subsidized system as a national model? Because privatizing education is primarily about shifting education from the public to the private sector, and especially removing control of public education from urban Black governance. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that, John White, the new Superintendent of the state-takeover schools, “declared the old model of elected school board in urban districts to be a failed idea.” Urban, is this case, means minority-controlled.
One of the lessons of New Orleans is that once the schools are privatized, they are never returned to local public control. The worse, chronically failing charters have simply been given to another charter operator. Although the state legislature in 2005 promised to return the seized schools once they were brought up to standard, that promise was broken in 2008 when the law was quietly changed to allow the state superintendent to put conditions on the return of the schools. Those conditions in effect guaranteed that schools would not be returned. New Orleans is a case study in the misuse of the original concept of charter schools which were intended to provide autonomy to create replicable innovations at the same cost to tax payers; the charter movement was hijacked by the free-marketers who simply wanted control of education and the profits that come with that. Instead of serving the students with the greatest needs, showcase charters boost test scores by discriminating against special needs students and recruiting high-skills students and using special disciplinary policies to force out low-performing students.
The public can’t be blamed for the skewed view of the New Orleans education changes. The first year that post-Katrina promotional test scores were published by the local Times-Picayune, the paper published only the top charter school scores. They did not publish the scores of the “dumping schools” within these charter networks where, in one case, 93% of the students failed the 4th grade LEAP promotional test.
New Orleans is at the center of the national debate on education because it was forced to trade democratic control of education for the illusory benefits of increased efficiency and lower costs—the promise that privatization always makes. The danger is that rest of the nation will forsake its local control of schools in exchange for the same illusion. In the end, the charter and on-line schools will make billions and leave the public with schools that perform at the same level but cost more as foundation and corporate subsidies disappear. It’s a classic bait-and-switch game played on a financially stressed nation searching for low-cost solutions to high-cost problems.
New Orleans is not, as charter advocates would have us believe and Louisiana charter law mandates, an ”experiment,” in which methods are scientifically tested and bad ideas are discarded: to the contrary, it is a carefully planned, ideologically-driven corporate takeover of public education that ignores its failures and emphasizes marketing over evidence-based science. The free market has no problem selling products that don’t work as long as they turn a profit.
Hurricane Katrina was the perfect storm for the corporate education movement: No democracy, no unions, and a goal of 100% privatization of all public schools. It is no mystery why they chose New Orleans as their beachhead.
Guest Blog by:
Lance Hill, Ph.D.
Southern Institute for Education and Research