Educating for Democracy: What If All Schools Were Charter

There's a comment attributed to Einstein: "The sign of insanity is when you do the same thing over and over again and expect different results." I wonder what this eminent thinker would have to say about someone who not only repeats the same flawed procedure but then expands on it. That is what Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana is doing by increasing the number of charter schools state-wide after turning over all the district schools in New Orleans to charter managers. Jindal obviously thinks it's a good thing as he declared last year in a speech in the Capitol:

'Louisiana Governor and likely presidential candidate Bobby Jindal (R) released his new 'road map' for reforming K-12 education focusing on the importance of deregulating and privatizing public schools and holding up New Orleans' all-charter Recovery School District as a model for the nation. 'I'm proud we've increased the number of charter schools, nearly doubling them," Jindal told an audience on Capitol Hill. 'I get so frustrated when people tell us to wait for incremental gains. We have seen remarkable gains.'

This is the "message" Jindal delivers in light of his opportunity to privatize all the schools in New Orleans as an example of what can happen when a school system is being "reformed" from the top down.

First of all "new data calls the supposed gains into question. Most of the class of 2014 graduating from the 100 percent-charter New Orleans Recovery School District scored so low on the national ACT test that they didn't meet the minimum requirements for Louisiana's colleges. According to numbers crunched by Louisiana public school teacher and doctor of statistics Mercedes Schneider, just over 6 percent of high school seniors in the Recovery School District scored high enough in English and Math to qualify for admission into a Louisiana four-year college or university straight out of high school. Five of the district's 16 high schools produced not a single student who met these requirements. The district's test scores were extremely low prior to Hurricane Katrina and the charter school conversion, but despite Jindal's claims of "remarkable gains," there has been no improvement in New Orleans' Recovery School District ACT scores since 2005. The class average is now 16.4, one of the lowest in Louisiana. There was a 0.6 decline statewide.

Reality notwithstanding, let us explore Jindal's suggestion and try to anticipate the results of this "transformation" of education in the United States:
1.Since most charter schools "counsel out" ["Expel" in plain English] students who don't fit the profile for a successful education, that is, ones that are disruptive, poor learners and generally behave in ways that would have a negative effect on standardized test scores, if there were no more non-charters in which to dump them, where, besides the street, would they go during school hours?

There are a huge number of young people in New Orleans between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school or working. The recent Measure of America study, conducted by the Social Science Research Council, found that the greater New Orleans/Metarie region is home to more than 26,000 so-called 'opportunity youth.' The youngest would have been just six when the overhaul of the school system began.

But even this number fails to convey the sheer number of young people here who have left the city's schools, and are in one of the fast-expanding alternative programs, or are in work-training programs to prepare them for jobs in the tourism and hospitality industry. Added together, the number of students who've dropped out of the New Orleans' schools begins to creep up uncomfortably close to the 43,000 students who are still in them.

Among the Governor's other accomplishments were:

1. An increase in segregation in the city schools through his voucher program so egregious that "In 2013, the Justice Department took Jindal's voucher program to court, arguing that it was making racial segregation worse in the state's schools. In 2014, a judge ruled to allow the program to continue, but the federal government is closely monitoring its impact on segregation and could sue again in the future.

2.. 'Besides the rapid conversion from public to charter schools, Jindal also touted his controversial voucher program, which steers taxpayer dollars to private, religious and even for-profit online schools.' Obviously no one bothered to tell Jindal that state funding is not permitted to be used for private schools. It's called the First Amendment to the Constitution.'

3. Critics have raised concerns about the quality of education at the private schools receiving voucher-funded pupils. A Mother Jones investigation revealed that some Louisiana schools were teaching that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth together, that the KKK did helpful community organizing, and that dragons were real.

'Over the past few months, Jindal has been giving speeches in DC and key primary states touting the importance of education at the same time he seeks hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to his own state's education budget. He writes in his new reform plan: 'New Orleans serves as an instructive example.' Those protesting school closings, low test scores and racial segregation in the Crescent City will likely disagree.

4. "Part of the "reform" was the wholesale firing of some 7,000 teachers, most of whom were black, who formed the backbone of the city's middle class.

5. One parent complained that the all-choice system actually disempowered parents. If she complained, she risked being asked to leave the charter school. The schools have more autonomy, but parents have less power.

"The charter sector is now consolidating, with chains taking over most of the stand-alone charters, and with the successful charters defined as those that produce the highest scores, innovation is hard to find. What is common practice is long days, tough discipline, testing, and 'no excuses.'" One parent lamented that the charter sector thinks that parents and children are problems, not patrons of the schools.

If you might think these outcomes would give pause to the "reform" movement, consider what is happening in New York City with the increased influence of charter school entrepreneurs:

In a July 30 New York Times feature on education it was reported that:

Jenny Sedlis, the executive director of StudentsFirstNY, [a charter school lobbying group] said the group's goal was to create a permanent organization to advance important education changes and neutralize the influence of the teachers' union.

'Before we came on the scene, the pro-reform community would get together for episodic fights and then we'd scatter, and the U.F.T. was always there,' she said, referring to the United Federation of Teachers city teachers' union.On the other hand, StudentsFirstNY boasts of their own financial support and their influence,
'With StudentsFirstNY, there's a board with a war chest that's always there,' Ms. Sedlis added. 'We're there before the election and after.. .The group is so plugged into the capital that Ms. Sedlis has sometimes served as a go-between among different government offices, relaying messages and scouting information about education bills being considered. Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio, said, 'When a group professing to support education reform opposes mayoral control of schools, it calls into question what exactly it stands for.'

Students First has supporters such as Daniel Loeb, Paul Tudor Jones, billionaire hedge fund managers, Carl Icahn, another billionaire and Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City schools who is an ardent supporter of charter schools at the expense of non-charters.

Mr. Jones said in a statement, 'Maintaining the status quo is unacceptable, and that's why StudentsFirstNY and others are fighting for reforms that can give parents more choices, ensure that only the best teachers are in the classroom and make sure that the best interests of the children in the system are put first.'
'Making teacher evaluations more dependent on test scores, reforming tenure and adding charter schools in the city were all priorities of StudentsFirstNY and became significant pieces of the governor's agenda for the 2015 legislative session, which he announced in his State of the State speech on Jan. 21.' That standardized tests have proven over and over again to be severely flawed methods of evaluation of teacher excellence seems to make no difference to the reformers.

Yet a spokesperson for the Governor delivers the same platitudes that were recited by Jindal.

"Improving the state's education system has been one of the governor's top priorities since taking office," Jim Malatras, the governor's director of state operations, said through a spokeswoman, "and throughout that process, he has always partnered with groups, stakeholders, experts and other allies willing to fight for better futures for New York's students."

That Governor Cuomo does not regard the teachers and their union representatives as an integral part of the partnering process is somewhat revealing. Cuomo is far less interested in education than in control of education especially since "the governor's proposals, particularly one that would base 50 percent of teachers' evaluations on their students' test scores, stirred fierce opposition from state and local teachers' unions, as well as many principals and parents."

There are many more players in the reform movement's game plan, but in view of what happened to New Orleans, I would like to present my tentative conclusions based on fifty years of teaching..

1. The education reform movement is not about education: it's about money: the growing influence of Pearson, the principle provider of instructional materials for useless test preps for useless tests proves this. That and the hedge fund investments in proprietary schools which have provided canny investors highly profitable enterprises.

2. But not only is the education reform movement about making money; it's about money with held or reduced in public school systems throughout the country . "At least 30 states are providing less funding per student for the 2014-15 school year than they did before the recession hit. Fourteen of these states have cut per-student funding by more than 10 percent.The war on teachers' unions is part of the agenda as new hired are cheaper and more easily controlled than old timers.. Meanwhile, despite dubious claims of success, on-line learning is spreading throughout the country like kudzu.

3. Finally, the education reform movement is about race and class. Although some of the staunchest allies of the reform and charter school movement are African-Americans and Latinos, the stringency with which the children "learn to follow instructions" is a very effective way of limiting the capacity of young learners to think for themselves.However, it is hard to argue with concerned parents who fear for their children's safety in non-charter schools when at least they will be safer in a school that can "council out" difficult learners rather than have to cope with them.

But to me the worm in any apple determining the quality of learning in the classroom is the increasing emphasis on standardized testing which, in some states, such as Washington, is no longer required. Few elite schools are bothered by or even aware of standardized testing unless, of course, for college admission.If standardized test scores are so important, why aren't they taken that seriously in the privileged schools?
The rise in the "opt out" of testing movement gives me hope that an increasing number of people see that the Emperor of Education has no clothes. However, in order to truly improve public education is a far greater challenge than coping with the charter and standardized scam; that is, to provide a living wage for all workers; invest to improve the quality of schools through better salaries and resources for teachers; and give a broad range of cultural and social opportunities for young learners with an abundance of the arts and sciences in the curriculum.