A Recovery from the Recovery: Has the Charter School Movement Traded One Set of Problems for Another?

The Shock Doctrine

In the weeks preceding Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), the eleven-member board that is constitutionally charged with adopting and enacting policies governing public schools, decided they needed to intervene in order to save a handful of failing schools in Orleans Parish. To address mismanagement and corruption that resulted in a persistently underperforming district, BESE recommended the creation of the Recovery School District (RSD), a brand-new legislatively-created political subdivision of the state. 

It is a coincidence of timing that the Recovery School District was created only weeks before the recovery from the Federal Flood, but in Louisiana, public education has been continuously jeopardized by racism, poverty, and divisive political gamesmanship ever since Huey P. Long paid for free textbooks for all of the state’s school children by taxing oil and gas companies. (As a result of Long’s textbook program, school attendance bounced up by 20%, and the oil and gas companies still made a fortune).

At least initially, policymakers, BESE board members, and members of then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s administration had pitched the RSD as a to repair a small number of broken schools by wresting away control from local administrators and temporarily operate the schools as charters. Once triaged, oversight would be returned to the local or parish school board. 

In many ways, the RSD was designed to operate like a consent decree, wherein the federal government oversees a corrupt local police department until the locals can be trusted again.

But what began as an effort to address a handful of problem schools quickly evolved into a takeover of the vast majority of Orleans Parish Schools as post-Katrina chaos ensued. In her nationally acclaimed book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein points to the RSD as a prime example of “disaster capitalism.” The initial recovery effort has grown into something entirely unprecedented, even on a national scale. 

Even the handful of traditional public schools that Orleans Parish held on to eventually were chartered. Nearly fifteen years later, there is not a single “traditional” public school in Orleans Parish. The last five closed their doors after the 2013-2014 school year. 

Some hold up the Orleans Parish’s post-Katrina status quo as an overwhelming success story of “school choice,” while public education advocates today push to reign in and manage the excesses of wholesale “charterization.”  

Among other measures, Louisiana RS § 17:3972, the enabling legislation that created the RSD, states, “It is the intention of the legislature in enacting this Chapter to authorize experimentation by city and parish school boards by authorizing the creation of innovative kinds of public schools for pupils” (emphasis added). Critics in Orleans Parish correctly argue that the legislature never intended for a school district to be fully encompassed by such experimentation as it is now.

When “school choice” is really just an algorithm

A consequence of a school district largely made up of charters was the introduction of the OneApp school placement system put in place in 2011. OneApp is a centralized common application system where parents can rank their school choices. OneApp’s algorithm then considers a number of inputs such as available seats, siblings enrolled, and, in some cases, the proximity of the schools from the applicant’s home. Students enrolled in closing schools are to have a priority for admission to schools at the top of their lists, usually “A” or “B” rated schools. 

However, on-the-ground, the reality is far different: Many students are falling through the algorithm’s gaps and are forced from closing schools to unproven and underperforming schools. Caroline Roemer, with the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, acknowledges that there currently “are just not enough seats in quality Orleans Parish charters.” 

Charter critics, such as Armtrice Cowart of Erase the Board Coalition, point out that the students slipping through the cracks are most often minority and impoverished students, while students in wealthy zip codes have a much easier time gaining admission to the best charters. “OneApp assures that failing schools survive because OneApp has to put students somewhere—even if the school is failing,” Cowart says. “That is not true school choice.” 

Even with the inclusion of charters such as Haynes Academy—a historically selective and overwhelmingly white/wealthy school—into OneApp, critics are skeptical of the access poor, primarily African American kids will have to these newly grandfathered-in schools. The weight that the OneApp algorithm places on geography and sibling attendance may keep schools like Haynes de-facto exclusionary. 

Critics do not only direct their attention to OneApp and structural injustices they believe it isn’t doing anything to remedy, they also point to a convoluted, unelected bureaucracy that is fragmented into dozens of charter boards in Orleans Parish. 

Maria Harmon of Step Up Louisiana, which describes itself as “a grassroots organization that fights for education and economic justice,” draws attention to the demographic makeup of many charter boards. “These boards are not largely made up of parents and those who know what is happening in their schools, at a ground level. There is a strong disconnect.” Harmon was pleased that the Orleans Parish School Board recently required that charter boards at least have one parent from the community, but she believes there is much work done in the way of transformational parental engagement in order to force out-of-touch boards to be more responsive to the unique needs of the students for whom they are responsible. While Harmon believes that charter boards seem to be “technically following public meeting laws,” she sees that boards don’t typically have their meetings at a central location where it is easy for parents, no matter the school their kids attend, to show up. After all, what incentive does a board of privatized education, short of democratic mandate, have to spend “unnecessarily” in an area such as a centralized boardroom? 

Step Up has also worked in the Einstein Charter Network to engage parents to ensure that kids from all over the city could ride yellow school busses, instead of public transportation for which Einstein Network children were receiving bus tokens. Step Up filed public records requests into Einstein, which, in part, was responsible for the eventual management change and bussing practices of the network. Even with all the work done to get yellow school buses for transportation, Harmon says “issues don’t end once schools provide traditional transportation.” 

Step Up continues to have issues with yellow-bus, transportation contractors cutting corners, ostensibly because they are operating at low costs, which continue to make it more dangerous for children to get to school. Just recently, a charter transportation provider was in the news for falsifying insurance certifications. The “race to the bottom” which this kind of false competition creates, paired with a lack of democratic oversight, can combine to create problems that are too dire to wait for market corrections to address— especially in the education of Louisiana’s future. 

A bureaucratic mess

Charter critics have welcomed the Orleans Parish School Board’s renewed and long-delayed oversight of the schools that were taken over by the RSD after Katrina, nearly fourteen years ago. While the landscape has drastically shifted over that period, the board is now faced with questions of what sorts of oversight are appropriate to exercise over its charter networks. Educational mismanagement in Orleans, which provided a backdrop to the move toward complete privatization, may now become visible again—but this time in charter networks and their contractors. 

On a state level, BESE is itself a charter authorizer and has a solid track record of approving charters. This has played out to give charter applications a second chance to receive a charter, even after being rejected by local school boards. 

Belinda Davis, an LSU political science professor, believes that “having multiple charter authorizing bodies, as Louisiana does, dilutes the quality of charter schools” and cites research conducted by Robert Crew and Mary Anderson.  Davis further asserts the charter school movement ideally is an innovative program that targets at-risk kids, but that there are few mechanisms being used to share things that are working with traditional schools. 

Caroline Roemer agrees. “I’d like to see more sharing across districts and types of schools to find what ‘the secret sauce’ is,” Roemer says. 

However, there are evident hurdles to realizing cooperation. From the perspective of some charter skeptics, there isn’t any compelling reason for charters to share what is working for them with districts and other schools because a charter’s financial security and value in the marketplace is partially dependent on the differentiation of their educational products from traditional schools and other charters. If a charter doesn’t do things differently than other schools, why send your kid there? On the other side of the coin, many charter advocates feel school board members turn their nose up at charters and are not willing to acknowledge successful charters because charters are not under their jurisdiction in the same way that traditional schools are. 

East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, which is currently set to consider applications for several new charter schools, is in a tough position. Tania Nyman, a Baton Rouge charter skeptic, says, “The board will likely approve all of the applications because if an application is not approved the charter will go before BESE and will in all likelihood be chartered.” School boards, such as EBR, that oversee charters also face uncertainty every year when students have the opportunity to enroll in charters. Employment in traditional schools is not “at-will,” so in the event of an exodus or influx of students to or from charter schools, districts can end up over or under staffed. Some argue this is a downside of traditional, public school employment, but the charter model may be more problematic.  

Charters do not typically have the same kind of job security nor do they retain staff for as long as traditional schools. Many simply can’t tolerate precarious employment practices and worst-case scenarios of having inexperienced teachers in environments where kids are in need of the most help. 

Location, location, location

Perhaps the most potent critique of charters is the close link some charters have with real estate interests. 

Currently in Louisiana, charter schools are allowed to enter capital lease agreements with for-profit real estate affiliates. Whereas traditional schools are owned by the school board and are a long-term financial asset to the public, real estate affiliates of charter networks profit directly from the allocation of per pupil funds. If the school fails, the affiliate still walks away with the asset. South Baton Rouge Charter Academy, operated by Florida-based Charter Schools USA leases in this way from Red Apple Development LLC, its real estate affiliate. 

Charter Schools USA has been a prolific contributor to Louisiana politicians on both sides of the aisle, though they have donated more frequently to Republicans than Democrats. Red Apple Development has contributed to only one campaign. In 2015 and then again in 2017, Red Apple cut $2,500 checks to Louisiana state Rep. Edmund Jordan. Jordan, an African American Democrat and a lawyer by trade, represents a struggling part of both East Baton Rouge and West Baton Rouge parishes. 

All of this is not to say that there aren’t some charters doing excellent work in Baton Rouge and around Louisiana. According to the latest Department of Education statistics, Madison Preparatory Academy, a “B” school, has a graduation rate of 94% and places 69% of its students in college. Mentorship STEAM Academy, a “C” school, offers a technologically advanced curriculum that one might find in one of Baton Rouge’s best parochial schools. 

Spending the minimum

“Charters and traditional schools receive roughly the same funds through BESE’s (Minimum Foundation Program) MFP formula,” says Neva Butkus of the Louisiana Budget Project, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that “monitors and reports on public policy and how it affects Louisiana’s low- to moderate-income families.” With financing essentially identical, one would be right to expect little difference between the performance of the two models if other variables are controlled for. 

One of these variables is Louisiana’s childhood poverty rate of 28%, high enough to rank Louisiana last in the US, which affects both charters and traditional schools. In a report from earlier this month, Butkus points to a couple of other factors: Louisiana also “has the largest gap between the incomes of families sending their children to public versus non public schools.” 

Critically, the state’s investments in public education have remained flatlined for far too long. While Louisiana’s per-pupil spending ranks among the national average, this is somewhat deceptive because of the enormous gap between states at the very top of the list. New York, for example, spends $18,719 per student, while Louisiana, which spends half as much, $9,462 per student.

Credit: Louisiana Budget Project

“For many years… the (MFP) increased annually by 2.75 percent to keep up with the rising cost of living,” Butkus explains. “But massive tax cuts, combined with the 2008 economic downturn, prompted state officials to eliminate this annual increase – ultimately leaving Louisiana with near-stagnant state funding for K-12 schools for over a decade.”

Credit: Louisiana Budget Project

It is easy to be pessimistic about the prospects of either educational model if the links between poverty and educational achievement are properly appreciated. But for many on the margins, the days of traditional school hegemony were better because there was no question that the parish school board was the one to hold accountable—even if the process often yielded pictures of corruption. 

Today, many are experiencing difficulties in correcting injustices of a system beleaguered by a convoluted bureaucracy, less parental access, and a startling lack of public oversight. To those parents and students, the solution is simple: Louisiana needs a recovery from the recovery.