Converting Public Schools into Charters
Is the privatized “business” approach producing better results?
School reform supporters for years have promoted the conversion of public schools into charter schools as a way of improving efficiency and installing more businesslike management of public schools. Legislatures in most states have been pressured to authorize more and more charter schools as the way of producing better academic results for children. Sixteen years ago there seemed to be no better place to experiment with charter schools as the ultimate school reform model than the New Orleans public school system. That school system was thought to be failing in providing students with the kind of education they needed to prepare for college and careers.
In 2005, as hurricane Katrina physically destroyed much of the Orleans public school system, the Louisiana legislature passed a law allowing the State Department of Education to take over approximately three-fourths of New Orleans public schools. According to the new state law, school takeover (only in New Orleans) became automatic for any school producing less than the state average score on state tests. Any such school was arbitrarily declared to be a failing school in need of takeover. The Department of Education was authorized to turn such schools over to charter school management organizations in an agreement that removed many state requirements and standards in exchange for greatly improved academic results. Over the term of the charter, if the schools improved average test performance significantly, the managers could continue running the school. But if they failed to produce academic results, their charters would be revoked.
The majority of charter management organizations came into the Orleans system starting with the 2006-07 school year. State officials had fired almost 7,000 experienced teachers and staff as a way of cleaning house and allowing the new managers a fresh start, unhampered by previous teacher contracts. Most charter groups began by hiring new, mostly younger teachers with no education credentials. Most new teachers were provided by Teach for America. Also, many of the charter school managers had no education credentials. The New Orleans business community and the state authorities believed that a strictly business approach focused primarily on academic results was the medicine that the New Orleans public schools needed. Now, over the last 16 years almost all public schools in New Orleans have been converted into charter schools. It is now basically the only all-charter school system in the United States.
This recently released report by the Louisiana Pelican Policy Institute, a business funded “good government” group has produced a dashboard that compares the most recent data on all public-school systems in Louisiana. It provides a way for us to compare expenditures and results in public schools. We can now get a good idea about whether the school reforms in New Orleans have lived up to their promises.
It is important to note that not all public schools in New Orleans at the time of takeover had been deemed to be failures. Even though the Orleans public school system, as a whole, fell into the bottom quartile of public school systems in the state based on academic achievement, there was a group of public schools in New Orleans that were performing well, even before 2006. Several highly selective schools had been producing high academic achievement and great college prep results. So approximately one-fourth of the Orleans schools were left intact because of acceptable results. Those schools, even though now converted into charters, continue to be selective in the students they serve and continue to produce exemplary results. But there is still a major problem with the state test scores of the other three-fourths - the reformed takeover schools.
The recent study shows that taken as a whole, the New Orleans all charter system is still ranking in the bottom quartile of all public-school systems in the state. This is in a state that performs near the bottom of all states on national testing and college preparedness. For example, the new dashboard reveals that for the four academic subjects of math, reading, science and social studies, only 18% of all New Orleans public school students are now rated proficient or better. (I averaged the results of the 4 academic subjects)
In the key subjects of math and reading, Orleans performs at the 24th percentile compared to all other state school systems. This is approximately the same as the Orleans school system performed before Katrina!
What about efficiency in the use of per pupil dollars? Has the new business-oriented model resulted in more efficient use of tax and grant dollars?
One thing that the all-charter system has been successful in doing is attracting a generous flow of charitable foundation money to these new experimental schools. A sizable portion of per pupil dollars in the reformed Orleans public system come from charitable and foundation grants. So the reformed all charter school system is certainly well funded.
The Pelican Policy Institute study has provided a rough measure of how the school money in Orleans is now allocated. Total per pupil funding of the New Orleans system now adds up to $24,434 per student. For Louisiana, this is lavish funding by any measure. The state average per pupil funding is now $11,755, less than half the per pupil amount for New Orleans. How do the New Orleans schools allocate their per pupil funding compared to all other public schools? According to the Pelican Policy dashboard, New Orleans now spends 23% of all its funding on administration and 36% on classroom instruction. (Salaries of the Charter managers are not published as far as I know) The state average for other systems in Louisiana is 8% for administration and 56% for the classrooms. (All non-charter public-school administrators and teacher salary schedules are public records)
Did the increased funding allow the reformed Orleans school system to hire a better quality of teachers? The state auditor recently found that more than half of the Orleans teachers are not certified as teachers. In addition, most of the teachers now employed in Orleans are Caucasian while 90% of the students are African American. This ignores studies that show that children learn better from real role models of their own ethnic type. So much for the new business approach.
Finally, on average, the other school systems in the state have 31% of students achieving proficiency in the 4 basic subjects tested. This compares to 18% achieving proficiency in the new reformed Orleans system.
The standard for school failure and state takeover in Louisiana has changed drastically in the last 16 years since the great charter school experiment was launched in New Orleans. Now there are practically no schools being taken over by the state based on academic performance. Now, few charters are revoked even when they continue to produce extremely low performance, but there is still a major movement to add even more charters statewide. Charter organizations have found it to be more advantageous to start new charters where the managers can attempt to attract mostly higher performing students instead of being expected to actually improve the performance of low achievers. My question: Is this happening because charters are deemed to be more efficient in producing better results, or is it because charter school operators see to it that generous contributions go to state politicians?
Comment: The statistics cited above, I believe, make a very convincing case that the school takeovers and conversion to mostly unregulated charters have not improved the overall academic performance of New Orleans students. In addition, there have been many cases of fraud and abuse by some unsupervised managers. There have been numerous cases of data manipulation, and corruption to ensure that charter managers could keep their jobs where they often determined their own high salaries. The very young, inexperienced TFA corps members were not in a position to blow the whistle on abuses because they needed positive recommendations as they went on to pursue their real careers outside the teaching profession.
Unfortunately, I believe there has been serious damage done to the futures of many New Orleans children. Students have often lost their neighborhood schools and been forced to bus to unfamiliar environments. The scramble for higher test scores among charter managers has often caused the loss of resources and neglect of students with disabilities who could not be used to improve test scores. Also, the push to teach only college prep subject matter to all students has resulted in the neglect of vital vocational and technical training that could have prepared many students for productive and rewarding careers that do not require college training. True college prep students have received less rigorous college prep because teachers were also trying to tend to the needs of lower performing students.
Finally, the greatest loss to New Orleans students, in my opinion, was the removal of thousands of excellent role models when experienced African American teachers were fired and often forced to leave the communities at the beginning of the reform effort. It is my belief that fewer students in the Orleans system are now inspired to attain college degrees than before the reforms because students have lost many role models in their communities of their own ethnic group who were college graduates and wonderful teachers.