Thursday, August 23, 2007

Charters in N.O.

In the most recent edition of The Nation, Michael Tisserand takes on the state of Louisiana's attempt to salvage public education in New Orleans through charter schools. One particularly poorly managed charter school is "but one battleground in what some are calling an education revolution." He goes on to imply that charter advocates jumped in to take advantage of an apocalyptic event and further their own goals of the privatization of public schools:
More recently, some advocates have argued that charters represent a superior way to run all public schools. Yet the results of national achievement tests have been inconclusive at best. Those wishing to forge ahead with a full-tilt charter revolution have also lacked a platform from which to launch their crusade. Then the floodwaters rose over New Orleans, sending some 65,000 public school students fleeing.
I tend to agree with Tisserand. The New Orleans charter move came from a sector of policymakers who view charters as "half a loaf," the whole loaf being vouchers and total school privatization. I think putting New Orleans public education in the hands of any nonprofit who stepped forward during a very traumatic time was an extremely misguided, but politically driven, thing to do.

What I don't like about this article is how familiar it sounds. It is basically an illustrated version of the AFT's talking points on charters (and I should know because I used to help write them). Take the argument that powerful people are intentionally starving non-charter public schools and fattening up charters, which don't educate the poorest kids, and which therefore have an unfair advantage in the school market. Tisserand writes that
By selective admissions, parental contracts and grade requirements, charter schools are able to "cream" their students not just by race and class but also by levels of parental involvement.
The New Orleans project, AND the Nation article, represent to me the worst thing about the charter movement in the U.S.: the partisan, Us vs. Them, unions vs. kids, private vs. public discussion. While accusations are being thrown around the think tanks of D.C., charter schools (as well as non-charter public schools) are quietly doing their thing for the benefit of countless needy kids. I'm afraid the lessons of N.O. will get lost in this discussion rather than contributing to a challenging discussion about how charters and districts can work together.

UPDATE: Please take a look at the thoughtful comment left by writer Michael Tisserand. Thanks, Michael, for pointing out where I quoted you out of context.

1 comment:

Michael Tisserand said...

Thank you for opening up the discussion about my recent article for The Nation on the current state of public schools in New Orleans. I do, however, want to make a couple clarifications.

The first school you cite, Clark, is an RSD school, not a charter. One of the crucial issues in New Orleans is the disparity in quality between the RSD schools and the new charters. Some fear that the current system is deepening the gap, while others hope that new state and local leadership will improve things for the next year. Stay tuned.

Also, I encourage everyone to read the entire paragraph from which the "creaming" sentence is lifted. That paragraph is intended to boil down the most common criticisms of charters, talking points or not. In the same section, I do discuss both the conservative and progressive arguments for charters.

Finally, to come clean, I can tell you where I personally stand: with a foot firmly planted on both sides of this debate. I have friends and personal heroes currently working in New Orleans charter schools. (I discuss some of them in depth in my book "Sugarcane Academy: How a New Orleans Teacher and His Storm-Struck Students Created a School to Remember.") Yet having lived in a pre-Katrina New Orleans where the quality gap between schools was a crying shame, I am indeed fearful that the success of some of the new charters will divert attention from the schools like Clark and others, where students go to school each day, fully aware that the city, state and country are not fully invested in their education.

Again, thank you for your continued attention on these crucial issues.