Cross-Post: Behind the Charter Facade

This story is cross-posted with permission from The Progressive.  

Jason France, aka Crazy Crawfish, writes a blog about education in Louisiana.

I worked at the Louisiana Department of Education when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. While many residents were drowning in their homes, choking on the oily toxic floodwaters, expiring from exposure on their rooftops, or furiously evacuating if they had the wherewithal, operatives at the Department and the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education were scheming to remake the city’s school system to their liking. On August 29, 2005, canals were breached across New Orleans, killing more than 1,000 people. Public education in New Orleans also died that day. New Orleans is now a 100 percent charter district. 

Louisiana had charter schools long before Katrina. Many of our first charters were closed for gross malfeasance and fraud. Some claimed they had hundreds of students, and received payments for these students, although they actually had none.

One of Louisiana’s oldest charter schools, Delhi Charter, made national news for requiring girls to take pregnancy tests. If these tests came back positive, girls were forced to withdraw.

In Louisiana, charter schools have intensified segregation by race and poverty.

The fate of one school, John McDonogh, also known as John Mac, speaks volumes about charters in New Orleans. John Mac was in trouble before Katrina. It was located in a historic building on Esplanade Avenue in Mid City, a nice part of town. But the school itself had fallen into decay after many years of neglect by the local school board. After the storm, the community had a glimmer of hope. Donors with big dollars were pouring into the city, and people from around the country were lining up to help. A local community group applied for a grant from the Waltons. They were awarded close to $1 million to fix up the school. Paul Vallas, a self-styled reformer and recent evacuee from the Philadelphia school system, where he left behind an enormous budget crisis, was taking over as superintendent in New Orleans.

When Vallas learned of this windfall for the community, he set to work to get grants for a number of Recovery School District schools he was brought to New Orleans to oversee. Vallas did receive a much larger award from the Waltons totaling almost $6.3 million for schools including John Mac, which he took over from the local community and began to run. The school appeared to do well enough under Vallas’s tenure. The truth became public only in 2014 when the state performed an audit that showed Vallas’s schools had purged under-performing students to artificially inflate their performance scores and graduation rates.

Next, John Mac was turned over to a charter operator from California, Steve Barr, who founded the Green Dot chain of charter schools in Los Angeles. Barr started Future Is Now Schools in New Orleans, which got the the charter to run John Mac. One of Barr’s first acts was to contact the media to document his plans to transform the school.

Despite all the money that flowed into New Orleans, very few of the dollars went to John Mac for renovations. Most of the building’s windows were boarded up—neighborhood activists documented rat infestations, black mold, and decaying floors and walls. When the vast sums of loosely monitored recovery dollars dried up, Paul Vallas moved on. John White, from New York, became the new superintendent. White famously went on the Morning Joe show to tout John Mac’s future as a state-of-the-art culinary institute that would be renovated with $35 million in recovery funds.

Those funds never materialized. What did come to John Mac was a poorly conceived Oprah documentary called Blackboard Wars, which described John Mac as the most dangerous school in America. Many community members felt their kids were being exploited and their privacy rights trampled. The school was finally shuttered before the end of the 2013-14 school year due to low enrollment (the ninth grade class started out with a baker’s dozen) and the lowest school performance score of any non-alternative school in the state, a 9.3 out of 150.

As a final parting gift, Future Is Now failed to wipe laptops and computers of private student data, including Social Security numbers. When reached for comment, former Future Is Now spokesman Gordon Wright said the organization had no response “because it no longer exists.”

Pointe Coupee was one of the first parishes outside of New Orleans with charter schools forced upon it. It is a small parish, and it is also one of the poorest in the state. In 2008, Pointe Coupee Central High School was closed by the state for poor performance. This was one of the first tests of the state law, outside of New Orleans, that allowed the state and Recovery School District to take over schools with “poor performance.” This move was not accepted well by locals, and the community organized numerous protests. Nevertheless, the school was handed over to an organization called Advance Baton Rouge.

Advance Baton Rouge had no experience running schools, and its failed efforts only further illustrated how idealism is no substitute for experience and competence. The school is now closed.

In 2012, one of Central High School’s students committed suicide by hanging herself from the bleachers of the school’s football stadium. Tesa Middlebrook did not leave a suicide note, but family and friends claimed it was a result of bullying at the school.

Her death spurred the creation of a push for bullying prevention legislation. State legislators chose to name a new antibullying bill the Tesa Middlebrook Act, but without checking with her family. The family did not like it, and filed a lawsuit over the use of her name for the legislation. Even more insulting was the fact that a stronger anti-bullying law had already been passed the previous year, but many schools, including Pointe Coupee Central High School, had not been complying with it. The new law that passed was weaker in numerous ways, but the final humiliating blow was that charter school lobbyists had managed to insert a provision that excluded them from having to comply with the law named after a student who took her own life on the grounds of her charter school.

The state took over schools in East Baton Rouge the same year they seized Pointe Coupee Central High School. The first three went to Advance Baton Rouge and another organization named 100 Black Men. Both groups were advocacy organizations and lacked any experience running schools. Most of the schools taken over by the Recovery School District, which include those three and five others, are abandoned or so sparsely populated with students that they are unsustainable. The abandoned and underutilized campuses are fast approaching blighted property status.

Most of the properties are becoming overgrown; some have actual trees growing in the gutters on the tops of the buildings. Parents from the communities where these schools are located have opted to have their children bused across the parish rather than attend them. This has led to overcrowding in much of the rest of the parish.

Despite the lack of enthusiasm for, or interest in, charter schools by the parents of public school children, the Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce and a local businessman named Lane Grigsby have engaged in a tireless campaign—and funded numerous PACs and faux-grassroots organizations like Better Schools for Better Futures, Stand for Children, and FuturePAC—to support charters despite their long track records of failure. Their efforts, far from improving schools in East Baton Rouge, have been successful at bankrupting the East Baton Rouge School District, and creating overcrowding that fuels breakaway efforts and dissatisfaction with the school district.

The negative impacts of these groups’ efforts have largely been downplayed or ignored by the media. When public school supporters met with the editorial board of The Advocate, Baton Rouge’s primary newspaper, they were told bluntly that public schools had failed, and the paper was supporting school vouchers, charters, private schools, and virtual schools—“anything but public schools.”

In Lafayette Parish, the local school board voted against allowing charter schools to open up shop. Charter schools did not respect the rights of locals and petitioned the state education board to grant them state charters. Charter operators and proponents claimed their schools were needed to address the needs of poor children not being well served by the existing school district. Over objections from the local community and school board, the state granted all petitions.

In the latest state school board race, some candidates were given half a million dollars in direct contributions from out-of-state PACs and education reform-minded billionaires like Michael Bloomberg from New York. Millions more were spent in indirect advertising and attack ads. These campaigns previously cost mere thousands of dollars. The state board’s recent decision made it very clear exactly what those dollars bought.

Lafayette illustrates another facet of charter behavior: the bait and switch. Charters are advertised as a way to help out or replace struggling schools. Lafayette Parish, one of the top school districts in the state, had some schools in poorer areas that were not performing well.

However, the shiny new schools were built about as far away from the poorest communities as they could be. Charter Schools USA opened up two charters in new housing developments named Sugar Pond Mills and Couret Farms, which sell new shotgun-style houses on small lots of land for as much as half a million dollars each.

These schools are theoretically open to the entire state, but do not provide transportation. They also require many hours of “service” from parents. Service time increases per child enrolled. Charter schools offer enrollment to all children on paper, but in the real world they do whatever they can to keep out the riffraff.

The third charter school opening up in Lafayette does seem to be targeting poorer children, but not the poorest. Willow Charter Academy opened in an abandoned Albertson’s grocery, by the interstate, and across from overgrown fields filled with litter and surrounded by other abandoned businesses. Willow Charter also decided not to provide transportation. School officials wanted local kids to “walk to a neighborhood school,” they explained.

There’s one problem with that idea. The school property is in a mall complex, surrounded by busy  highways on all sides and giant parking lots. The nearest subdivision is blocked by an impenetrable overgrown forest.

Charter schools often find ways to comb out the poorest of the poor. Poverty is the single biggest predictor of student performance on standardized tests, which are used to grade schools. The wealthier your student body, the better your school will look regardless of any other factors.

By requiring service at schools and transportation, charter schools know they can filter out the poorest children with the least involved parents. This gives charters an advantage over traditional schools that is not captured by data, since public schools must educate everyone. This “creaming” strategy actually burdens traditional schools by leaving them with the students who need the most support and who are the farthest behind. Despite these advantages, charter schools still post poorer performance than their demographics would warrant. However, most traditional media outlets don’t understand this. Many of them have been bought, or they’ve bought the propaganda that charter schools are always an improvement over public schools.

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