When school starts in New Orleans next year, all of the schools will be charters. The district’s 33,000 students will have to apply for a seat at one of 58 charter schools in the country’s first all-charter system.
This is a triumph for the forces of corporate, anti-union reform, for the forces of profit making. It is a blow to public education in the country.
This experiment is being built on the wreckage caused by Hurricane Katrina. This culturally and economically important majority Black city in Louisiana was changed forever—not necessarily by the hurricane itself but by the U.S. government’s disinterested, racist attitude toward actually addressing the needs of the population following the destruction. The relief effort was botched. And then business forces saw an opportunity—to gentrify and redefine New Orleans.
This approach extended to public schools in the city. Just after Hurricane Katrina, the state took control of 102 schools and placed them under the control of the Recovery School District (the district that just shuttered the public schools). The district had a plan: privatize the schools. The city has spent and is spending billions on the school building renovations then turning them over to independent charter school operators for FREE.
The remaining 15 were left to the control of the Orleans Parish School Board. What did they do? Fire 7,000 mostly African American employees and replace them with younger inexperienced mostly white, mainly Teach for America, teachers.
The entire operation was a cheap trick enacted to carry out the desires of a broader corporate reform agenda to destroy public education.
For New Orleans, the result has been a segregated, profoundly unequal system overseen by independent charter school operators who answer to no public institution. They answer to shareholders and funders. That’s it.
In New Orleans, there are high quality charter schools and there are poor quality charter schools. Who attend the former? Mostly white and wealthier students. Who attends the latter? Mostly Black and all working class, poorer students. How do they maintain this segregated system? The better charter schools are overseen by the Orleans Parish School board and don’t participate in the computerized placement lottery.
But the move to an entirely charter district for the first time in the nation has implications beyond those in New Orleans too.
And it’s been tried before.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s pet project in Newark, New Jersey, spent hundreds of millions of dollars intended to “make Newark the charter school capital of the nation.” Hundreds of millions of dollars and over four years later not much can be said for that project. Los Angeles is one of the cities with the largest charter school system in the nation.
Neither of these systems can boast any sort of real educational progress but there has been plenty of corruption, profiteering, test score scandals and the denial of education to special needs and students from oppressed communities. Communities have been destabilized by the lack of accountability for the independent operators and the undermining of teachers unions—organizations that fight in the best interests of teachers AND families.
The charter school movement has been building for decades now. It’s backers are not educators, parents, student organizations or anyone really involved in education. Rather, they are wealthy entrepreneurs and their political cronies of both major parties. The main funders include Bill Gates, real-estate and insurance magnate Eli Broad, the Walton Family and other billionaires. Note for just a minute the complete irony of the WALTON FAMILY purporting to care about the lives of millions of public education students and their families while super exploiting the very same workers who send their children to public schools to reap uberprofits for a single family. The billionaire funders have also focused on expanding Teach for America and creating Common Core Standards—again without the genuine involvement of educators.
Charter schools are a central part of their package that also includes breaking unions, tying teacher pay to test scores and undoing the core of public education. The political gift wrapping was first Bush’s No Child Left Behind and then Obama’s Race to the Top. Both of these amounted to billions of dollars in federal money to close schools, fire experienced teachers, tie pay to test scores, push standardized testing and support the move to charter schools.
Public education is a promise to educate each and every child. Charter schools and the so-called reform movement do the very opposite. They lay the foundations for the privatization of public education—for a system that can choose what children it wants to educate in the interests of the individuals and corporations that run those charter school systems.