The New Orleans Charter Public School Experiment

Charter public schools, or just “charter schools” as they are usually described by most opponents and many conservative supporters, have now become common enough around the country that it’s difficult to avoid dealing with them if you are interested in education–but not common enough to elude sometimes erroneous stereotypes and the Kabuki Theater of being perceived as a way station between “traditional” public schools and private schools receiving taxpayer financed vouchers. Technically, charter schools are defined simply as independently operated public schools that are held accountable to a “charter”–a contract specifying expectations. Like other public schools, they are open to all kids free of charge, though specialization and wait-listing often challenge that principle. The fundamental idea motivating charters is that the kind of one-size-fits-all teaching methods fostered by a school board monopoly that not only supervises but operates schools is inimical to educational innovation and customized instruction. But in many parts of the country, charters are operating as marginal or experimental islands in a sea of traditional schools, and sometimes as concessions to conservatives who actually want to go a lot further and privatize K-12 education with vouchers that carry no accountability at all beyond the preferences of parents.

At the same time, charters have become more the rule than the exception in a handful of big cities with a reputation for exceptionally bad public schools serving mostly low-income minority families. And that’s nowhere more obvious than in New Orleans, where an almost biblical natural disaster (Hurricane Katrina) that literally swept away a failed public education system led to a radical experiment making nearly all public schools charters.

This is the story told comprehensively by famed Reinventing Government author David Osborne in the June/July/August issue of the Washington Monthly.

Osborne is an advocate for this experiment, not just an observer; his own daughter was a Teach for America placement in a New Orleans charter school (though he carefully notes that school’s struggle to improve its academic performance), and he is currently director of the Reinventing America’s Schools Project at the New Dem-ish Progressive Policy Institute, long a charter proponent (disclosure: I was a PPI senior fellow until recently). But he’s pretty clear about the precarious nature of the Louisiana charter initiative, the extremely low bar it needed to clear to be deemed a success, and its exceptional characteristics, including a staunch determination by the authorities (especially the state-authorized Recovery School District created in the immediate wake of Katrina to deal with an educational crisis beyond the capacity of the Orleans Parish school board) to close down unsuccessful charters and to ensure parent/student choice among charters (New Orleans charters are not only open to all students, but free transportation is guaranteed).

You should read the whole article, but one big issue bluntly faced by Osborne was the union-free character of New Orleans charters. He deems the absence of collective bargaining agreements as integral to the schools’ success, in part because unions fought the entire experiment tooth and nail, but also because fixed district-wide agreements inherently interfered with the schools’ ability to set its own rules.

There is more than a little irony to the well-known antagonism between teachers unions and the charter movement in most parts of the country. The universally acknowledged originator of the whole charter idea was none other than Albert Shanker, founder and president of the American Federation of Teachers, who made a famous National Press Club speech on a “new type of school” back in 1988. Indeed, as Rachel Cohen explains in a new piece over at the Prospect, there’s fresh interest in union circles in fixing rather than fighting charters, and also a new wave of efforts among charter teachers to unionize.

One interesting if understandable omission by Osborne is any reference to the political competition in Louisiana between the charter schools initially enabled by Governors Mike Foster (a Democrat-turned-Republican) and Kathleen Blanco (a Democrat) and the vast voucher experiment launched by their successor, Bobby Jindal–which was ultimately stopped by the Louisiana courts. It’s reasonable to assume he wanted to avoid both the political taint of association with Jindal, and the political and substantive conflation of charters with voucher programs that involve little or no accountability and no guarantee of free public access.

In any event, the whole New Orleans tale is fascinating and sometimes confusing on multiple levels:

On surveys, a quarter to a third of African Americans have consistently expressed anger about the reforms, according to [New Orleans charter pioneer Leslie] Jacobs. “They want the schools returned to the OPSB, they resent charter schools, they’re not supportive of the RSD, and they’re angry. It’s the same people who feel that their power has been taken from them and what happened post-Katrina is a white conspiracy against them.”

As the new system developed, there were enough flaws to feed the arguments of the critics. The RSD has had to discipline charters for trying to avoid special education students or deny them appropriate services. It has found nepotism in more than one school. Its schools still suffer from high truancy rates, as most inner-city schools do. And though fifteen charters have been closed, some marginal schools manage to survive.

Beyond New Orleans, the big question is whether Shanker’s insight that “a new type of school” could liberate teachers and make administrators and politicians accountable will be ground up in controversy, or will influence or even determine the shape of things to come in public education.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.