Guest commentary: Charter experiment in New Orleans a failure

The Louisiana Department of Education’s recent release of the results of the LEAP and iLEAP testing is incontrovertible evidence that the “grand experiment” of the charter system in New Orleans has failed. The New Orleans Recovery School District comes in at the 17th percentile in the state in its percentage of students at the basic level and above. The RSD has no A-rated schools and few B schools. By the state’s post-Katrina definition of a failing school, nine years into the experiment, nearly all of the schools in the RSD are “failing.” Communities around the state that are grappling with their own public education challenges should look at New Orleans’ charter schools experience with skepticism.

These results run counter to Bobby Jindal’s New-Orleans-as-a-model-of-reform rhetoric. Such claims are often based on inflated graduation rates and test scores that result when reformers combine the scores of the RSD and the separate Orleans Parish School Board schools. OPSB schools are in the 89th percentile in the state, and most of its charters are given grades of A or B.

Advocates argue that even if the scores are low, the new system is still better than the old because parents now have choice. A recent Washington Post article quotes New Schools for New Orleans CEO Neerav Kingsland, “If I am unhappy with service I’m getting in a school, I can pull my kid out and go to another school tomorrow.” Unhappy at your school? Just show up at another one the next day!

This idea of school choice is more legend than fact. Parents must apply to the RSD schools via OneApp, a system that fails to guarantee a spot in any of one’s top choices. Given the scores within RSD, parents have a Hobson’s choice. They can apply to OPSB schools but because these schools control their own enrollment, there are lotteries. Unlike the Power Ball, all tickets do not have an equal chance of winning. You can only get into the lottery if you meet a school’s criteria. At one school, prospective kindergartners are given a reading and math test (never mind that most can’t read and are unfamiliar with the term “math”) in a room, alone with a test administrator he or she does not know on a date assigned by the school. Students who do not score above a certain level cannot get into the lottery, and those who score the highest have better odds of selection. When it can essentially draft its students, is it a wonder this is one of the city’s highest performing schools?

How much longer will our elected officials allow this experiment to continue? Unfortunately, theories on power suggest cause for more despair than hope. In 1962, political scientists Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz argued that mass groups had authority in local debates about public education because the elites had effectively narrowed the public’s choices so that any electoral outcome was acceptable. Indeed, in the last election, there were no candidates in opposition to the privatization agenda.

The powerful also shape debates in their favor in a more insidious way: by determining underlying societal values which work to manipulate the powerless into supporting what is not in their best interests. For example, “choice” is always posed as a societal good – having more choices is just better. It’s better to have choices even when they are constrained by a dearth of good options or are rigged in favor of the most advantaged.

It doesn’t matter that with all this choice, most kids in New Orleans have no greater educational opportunities than before. The focus on choice as opposed to results also obscures the fact that certain groups have profited substantially in the post-Katrina system.

J. Celeste Lay is an associate professor of political science at Tulane University. Her views do not represent Tulane University.