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How “School Choice” Has Failed Louisiana (Especially New Orleans) Parents

January 28, 2014

Advocates of the privatization of American public education have proclaimed the week of January 26, 2014, as “school choice week.” As such, they are celebrating the creation of their own lucrative bureaucracy, one that is anything but controlled by parents.

In short, “school choice” is a misnomer.

“School choice” would be better named “forced choice,” for those in charge in the “choice” bureaucracy are the ones who control (and manipulate, and move at will) the boundaries of “parental choice.”

Let us consider the handcuffs of “school choice” as such are firmly fastened to the wrists of parents in Louisiana and chiefly in the “school choice” prison of New Orleans.

Let’s Seize Control and Call It “Choice”

In New Orleans, “school choice” received a handsome gift from Louisiana legislators in 2005 (following Hurricane Katrina) with the passage of Act 35, which handed over any school “below the state average” to the state-run Recovery School District (RSD). Act 35 gives the state carte blanche in the running of its schools– which is how New Orleans (the system with the largest number of schools taken over by the state) became almost exclusively a charter district.

(For further evidence of RSD carte blanche, consider the results of the 2013 Louisiana charter school audit.)

The goal of Act 35 was to privatize New Orleans public schools. In order to completely privatize the district (the goal of then-State Superintendent Cecil Picard), the Louisiana Constitution would have had to have been amended in order to dissolve the Orleans Parish board of education. Depositions related to the wrongful dismissal lawsuit of New Orleans teachers following Katrina revealed such information. (For more information on these depositions, contact Dr. Raynard Sanders of the New Orleans Imperative.)

Allow me to also offer some of the details from what amounted to the seizure of New Orleans for massive charter takeover from the book, Agents of Change:

…A drastic takeover was in the making. “I went to the superintendent, Cecil Picard, in Lafayette,” [former Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) member Leslie] Jacobs told us, “and I said, ‘This is how we take the rest of the [New Orleans] schools over: let’s change the definition of failing school and require BESE to take over the schools.'” The plan was to change RSD legislation to allow the state, rather than OPSB[Orleans Parish School Board], to reopen the schools. Jacobs started working with State Superintendent Cecil Picard and the legislature to amend the existing RSD legislation. They acted fast. There was no time for lengthy deliberations about the future of public education. …

Within just months following Katrina, the state had seized control over 107 of the 127 public schools in the city [of New Orleans]. The change could not be hindered by vested interests. The OPSB was simply too weak to put up a fight. So was the teachers union, whose membership had dwindled as a result of evacuation and the OPSB’s ensuing layoffs. …

In the same year [2006], Jacobs, Sarah Usdin [who founded New Schools for New Orleans] and the Louisiana Department of Education worked to bring Teach for America and the New Teacher Project back to the city. …

In the following years, New Schools for New Orleans, Teach for America, and KIPP… became what Jacobs called “the anchor tenants of reform….”

Jacobs, Usdin, and other change agents put out the call for national charter organizations to come to New Orleans and for foundations to help finance…. [Emphasis added.]

There we have it: New Orleans as a petri dish for reform.

“Parental choice”– not so much.

Parents were among those blindsided by the RSD post-Katrina “experiment.”

The change could not be hindered by vested interests, remember?

Parents, You Have a Choice… If the State So Chooses

As to parental choice in Act 35, the following language is hardly discussed:

At the time of the transfer of a school to the recovery district, the parent or guardian with responsibility for decisions regarding the education of any student attending a transferred school or any student who would be assigned to attend a transferred school shall be able to continue to have their child enrolled in and attend a school under the jurisdiction of the recovery district or may exercise an option, if one is made available by the city, parish, or other local public school board from which the school is being transferred to have the child enroll in or attend another school operated by the school board. [Emphasis added.]

Thus, parents are dependent upon the school boards/jurisdictions related to schools taken over by the state to have options “made available” by the original district.

And if the “original district” is the state, the RSD holds the cards regarding what “options” it provides parents– if it decides to provide such options.

New Orleans public school parents are at the mercy of the state.

So much for “empowerment.”

Via Act 35, RSD is able to keep a school indefinitely and “turn over” the school to as many subsequent charter operators as it likes.

Parental “Choice” Excludes the Democratic Process

Parents had no say in the 2005 criteria for state takeover of Louisiana’s community schools, and they have no power to halt “charter churn.” You see, charter management is also out of the hands of parents. Parents have no legislatively-protected say regarding the quality of education provided by New Orleans charters.

Louisiana parents do not exercise any democratically recognized authority over the charters in their districts.  Parents can form advocacy groups and protest in order to voice their distresses over issues such as charter school presence, change of policy, and questionable practices (and here and here). However, in the end, parents enforce no formalized power over either charter presence or  practices in their districts.

Parental “Choice” Excludes Any Community School Default– But Parents Do Get More Bureaucracy

Furthermore, via New Orleans’ “open enrollment,” parents have no default setting of sending their children to the community schools in their neighborhoods. For one, the community schools no longer exist in many New Orleans neighborhoods. The buildings might still stand, but the schools are often run by charter operators (FirstLine Schools, KIPP, Choice Foundation, Friends of King).

The bureaucracy of choice requires that parents participate in the convoluted, Walton-funded OneApp process in order to be “empowered” to “choose” other “low-performing” schools to attend.

What the OneApp process guarantees is that students will be spread throughout the predominately-charter RSD in order to offer the appearance that no charter is rejected by parents’ “voting with their applications.”

This diffusion of students in order to paint a portrait of all-inclusive charter acceptance is assisted by the fact that in 2012, one in five parents did not participate in OneApp– which means that several thousand students were placed wherever the state wanted to place them:

…To apply for choice to attend one of the seemingly legitimate 72 available [New Orleans] schools listed…, parents must complete the daunting OneApp, which in 2012, approximately 22% of parents did not do. The notable percentage of parents not submitting OneApps means that 7,000 out of 32,000 RSD students were placed in their schools by the state. In short, over one in five children’s parents did not exercise the “choice” that the state insisted they have in the manner that the state insisted that they have it. [Emphasis added.]

One in five New Orleans parents is not invested in the state-mandated, New-Orleans-schools choice system. And no one from the state appears interested in asking these parents why they refuse to participate.

Shouldn’t Someone Ask Parents What They Think of Forced Choice?

The state does not care to know what parents truly think of this “choice” process. The state wants the process; the under-regulated charters want the process.

In corporate reform, parents are told of their choices by people who are above the consequences of the forced choice.

Speaking of people above the consequences of mandated school choice: Here is how the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools (LAPCS), run by President Caroline Roemer Shirley– the sister of BESE President Chas Roemer– paints charter “parental choice” in Louisiana:

In celebration of the nearly 60,000 students who have access to quality educational options through Louisiana’s widespread and robust network of public charter schools, the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools (LAPCS) is recognizing National School Choice Week during the week of Jan. 26 through Feb. 1.   

LAPCS actively participates in offering numerous school choice options to students across the Bayou State through its 117 public charter schools in 19 parishes; these schools comprise one of the strongest charter school movements in the country, thanks to one of the most powerful charter school laws in the U.S. [Emphasis added.]

Let’s talk about those “quality educational options.” Act 35 enabled the state takeover of “below average” schools as defined by school performance scores. Such scores were not accompanied by letter grades until 2010. However, we have those letter grades now, and according to former BESE President Penny Dastugue, “People can relate to grades.” (Dastugue was merely regurgitating what the American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC] promoted in its Washington, DC meeting in December 2010.)

The Post-Katrina “Experiment”: From “Failing” Schools to… “Failing” Schools

People can relate to letter grades— for better or worse.

In the case of RSD, it has been for worse.

The major RSD takeover of New Orleans schools occurred in 2005.

The OneApp linked above is for 2013.

Eight years after its takeover of most New Orleans schools, RSD-NO (New Orleans) has no “A” schools.

Even with the 2013 school grade manipulations that allowed schools with low-performing students to receive “bonus points” (you read it right), the coveted “A” school still evades RSD-NO.

Thus, it is not possible for New Orleans parents to “choose” an RSD-NO “A” school.

LDOE’s manipulating the 2013 school performance scores via its “bonus points” has relabeled many 2012 “D” schools as “C” schools.

However, keep in mind that as far as another aspect of “choice” is concerned– the voucher– “C” schools are designated as “low performing.”

(The Louisiana voucher program has itself been an embarrassment for its extremely low participant scores on state tests; for almost half of the participating schools’ receiving a “D” or “F” letter grade in 2013, and for its less-than-rigorous 2013 audit findings.)

Parental “Choice” and Controlled Information

While Roemer Shirley boasts of Louisiana as having “one of the strongest charter movements in the country,” the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) has yet to reveal complete, comprehensive, raw data so that third parties might hold LDOE accountable for its own in-house calculations of school performance scores and letter grades on ALL charters, including those that turn over or are otherwise “modified” in some way.

Parents are dependent upon the pro-privatizing LDOE, BESE, and LPCSA for charter school information. Since a Louisiana court recently ruled that LDOE has the right to release data to third parties of its choosing, one can rest assured that “objective” research on Louisiana charters is biased in favor of a positive charter school image.

Informed parental choice cannot happen if information is tightly controlled by those with a vested interest in preserving the privatized education system that now prevails in New Orleans.

Why, it seems that former BESE member Leslie Jacobs has been indispensable toward creating a new “status quo” in New Orleans– one in which parental “choice”– complete with LDOE-approved research– is meted out from On High.

Celebrating the Tourniquet of School Choice

In commemoration of School Choice Week, let us recap the choices offered to Louisiana public school parents– especially New Orleans public school parents:

The opportunistic, hostile state takeover of New Orleans public schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina expressly for privatization. Zero parental input.

Obliteration of the concept of community schools at a time when people were grieving the loss of their communities due to an unprecedented natural disaster. Zero parental input.

State decisions to grant charters… over and over again, if the state wishes. No established democratic process for parental input.

State takeover of what it has decided are “failing” schools and the demonstrated inability to offer even the majority of parents what the state determines are the “best” schools– “A”-rated schools– as either charter or voucher options.

No state-established time line or standard for overall assessment of the “success” of the privatization “experiment” in New Orleans–only continued declarations of success on behalf of the state and those supporting (or being supported by) privatization.

No free and open access to RSD data for third-party analysis so that parents (and the general public) might form decisions about RSD success separate from LDOE “pre-approval.”

Why, it seems like a more accurate name for this week might be Hostile Takeover, Forced Privatization, Kill the Community School, Embarrassingly Low School Letter Grade, Hide the Data, No State-run Summative Accountability, No Democratic Process for Parental School Choice Week.

  1. Laura h. Chapman permalink

    You are doing a remarkable job of balancing attention to relatively unique local/state issues and the broader policies that are undermining public education. The intersections are clear, but not many people, even those with children in school, are as fully engaged with the in policy issues as many of wish. In any case, keep up the great work.

  2. joseph permalink

    Don’t Make Me Over

  3. Tricia permalink

    I was just watching The Five on foxnews, it was suggested the VA hospital system should look at New Orleans Charter School system as a model of success. They seem to think that Charter schools have competely turned around the New Orleans school system. I think they need you to help clarify the facts.

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