Recently I was contacted by The Progressive to write an overview of charter schools in Louisiana. I have been watching this “experiment” unfold from a fairly unique perspective. My first look was as a State of Louisiana Employee just after charter schools were becoming established haphazardly around the state. When I started at LDOE I was told of some of the misdeeds of previous operators, and I struggled alongside some of them to get their data reported accurately and in a timely manner. Our initial operators were mostly standalone outfits and not altogether bad and some with the best of intentions if not the best business sense or relevant experience. For the most part these early operators were homegrown and unconnected to external forces and influences and my bosses had no strong feelings about them either way.
As my tenure at the department lengthened, and new Education Reformer obsessed State Superintendents came to the fore like Paul Pastorek and John White, charters schools took on a new, more sinister dimension and set of goals. I finally left the Department in February of 2012 to start my blog. My naïve plan at the time was to reveal some of the misdeeds and to try and reverse the tide of all the negative trends and policies being enacted by out of state interests and pirogue-loads of out of state money.
What follows is the intro of my original piece I submitted. My full piece was close to 5000 words and not entirely complete and my allotted space was maxxed at 2000 words. I worked with the editors at The Progressive to streamline my piece, but I will be publishing parts of my original work in various future blog posts – so my time and research was not wasted. I enjoyed the opportunity to work with some national media sources and I hope you find the pieces I will write now and in the immediate future informative and useful. I start off with a brief into on the charter movement as we see it today.
Albert Shanker, a former President of the American Federation of Teachers Union (1974 – 1997) is sometimes credited with founding the modern charter movement in 1988. His idea was to create an environment focused on serving the neediest students. The basic premise was for charters to work collaboratively with school districts and their most challenging students. Ideas that proved the most fruitful would be shared and applied throughout the public systems to make them stronger and more responsive. As originally conceived, Charter schools were to be R&D laboratories, and their research would be used for the benefit of all public school students.
In 1991 Joe Nathan and Ted Kolderie, education reformers from Minnesota, altered Shanker’s idea to one that would appeal to entrepreneurs, and squeeze out educators.
Nathan and Kolderie instead proposed that schools be authorized by statewide agencies that were separate and apart from local district control. That opened charter doors not only to teachers but also to outside entrepreneurs. Competition between charters and districts was to be encouraged.
By 1993 Shanker realized some significant flaws in his ideas and renounced support of his own idea, but by then it was too late. Private industry and education reformers had spotted an opening, a new market, and would spend the next two decades ramping up resources and propagating propaganda to exploit it.
These resources would go to fund pro-privatization with an eye toward profit margins rather than children:
- Candidates like Bobby Jindal, Barack Obama, Dannel Malloy and Scott Walker
- Agendas like American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC) and Democrats For Education Reform (DFER)
- Organizations like Teach For America (TFA), Stand For Children (Stand) and the Black Alliance For Educational Options (BAEO)
- Charter Sponsored Media and Movies like NBCs Education Nation, Waiting for Superman, and Won’t Back Down
These groups cover vast swaths of the political spectrum and use a cunning and effective combination of statistical sleight-of-hand, repetitive messaging and empathic emotional pleas to lure people to their banners and crusade. To the casual observer, which most folks are, these forces offer beacons of hope; hope to the messages of despair they themselves seeded beforehand. Their messages are wrapped up in pleasingly packaged message so many of us find so compelling and alluring:
Free enterprise and American spirit and ingenuity will come to the rescue of our “failing schools” and flagging nation!
Research institutions like the Cowen Institute at Tulane and CREDO (a conservative Hoover offshoot based on Stanford’s campus lend it a liberal air) were funded or founded with the express purpose of promoting charter schools. Publicity campaigns were rolled out to advertise the higher standards and quality of charter schools. Charter schools were initially advertised as having better academics (although usually with fewer certified teachers and less experienced teachers) and being less expensive (usually they are much more expensive when factoring costs to communities and grants). Charter schools were marketed in much the same way as margarine, Vioxx, and cigarettes. As is so often the case with miracle products, as the data is eventually analyzed objectively, and the full ramifications understood the tragic flaws are revealed.
Research now shows that charter schools are most often no better than public schools with the same demographics, and sometimes they are much, much worse. Rather than admit defeat, pull their products, or actually try to make them live up their previous advertising the campaign was switched to one of “Choice”.
Amazingly, I was just informed today that even the head of the CREDO institute has grudgingly come to this conclusion on her own.
Her reasons for why states need to exert more control raised a few eyebrows. A self-described supporter of free markets, Raymond said a totally free market is not appropriate for schools.
“It’s the only industry/sector where the market doesn’t work,” Raymond said.
But it’s “Choice” with capital C! It has to be good, right?
Who doesn’t instinctively favor “choice” and freewill in a free society? It sounds liberating. It sounds positive. Unfortunately it’s also an illusion. Good “choices” only exist in clever online marketing ads sent to your Facebook account (with happy children of the same race as your own as determined by Big Data Algorithms) and in the mailers stuffed in your door handles and mailboxes.
Charter schools and their advocates go out of their way to obscure data and bash public schools so parents can’t make an informed choice. States are run and overseen by officials bought with charter money to ensure this. You can’t make a good choice with bad data and with only bad choices available.
“Parents can’t be agents of quality assurance,” Raymond said, stressing the need for better information to be available to parents as they pick schools.
When outsiders think of Louisiana and charter schools, they often think of Katrina and New Orleans. New Orleans is now a 100% charter operated district. Charters are a manmade disaster heaped upon a natural one. Hurricane Katrina was the once in a 100 year natural disaster that charter school operators and their allies chose to exploit.
I worked at the Louisiana Department of Education during this time. I would learn later that while many New Orleanians were drowning in their homes, choking on the oily toxic flood waters, expiring from exposure on their rooftops, or furiously evacuating if they had the wherewithal, operatives at the Department and from the New Orleans area and State BESE board were meticulously conspiring to remake the city’s education system to their liking. Many people perished, and we may never have a full accounting of the deaths. On Monday, August 29th, 2005 canals were breached across New Orleans. Public education also died that day. Louisiana’s loss and the Nation’s shame was to become the Charter Movement’s gain.
The words of US Education Secretary Arne Duncan about Katrina will forever live in infamy for me and many of my friends, family and people.
…let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.
If you would like to see the next part of this story check out this month’s issue in The Progressive you can purchase a digital copy to support work of folks like me or wait until later this month when it is released.