Lack of Quality Schools Will Doom Common Enrollment in Louisiana

The ratings that preserve the status quo

Students aren’t randomly assigned to schools that all operate under the same set of rules and that means we can’t think of schools as stock cars in the same race. But it’s still how public school parents capitulate to Louisiana’s system of assigning letter grades to schools.

School letter grades draw significantly from school test scores — numbers that often say more about how much money parents make than the quality of instruction students receive. Other factors that make it difficult to see exactly what a grade says about a school include: Biased and opaque entrance examinations, a lack of transportation, excessive school discipline, disservices to special-needs students and inequitable funding.

There were no “A” graded schools out of the 54 in the Recovery School District, which has a higher percentage of low-income and special needs students than its Orleans Parish School Board counterparts. Orleans Parish Schools, which has three selective admissions schools out of 19 total, has no “F” schools.

Related: In a state where charters are brand new, students rally for more of them

In New Orleans, school letter grades are also stand-ins for how much liberty we give wealthy people to curate their own school populations.

For instance, NOLA’s “A” rated Lusher Charter School includes an achievement test, attendance zone and a separate application for those who don’t live within their catchment zone to enroll students. Really, what does an “A” really mean?

The Louisiana Attorney General forced Lusher executives to reveal the name of the test (Wechsler Individual Achievement Test) they use as the basis for their weeding processes.

The equity problem is bigger than the 26 “A” or “B” schools including Lusher. Some advocates claim that schools’ impending participation in the common enrollment system, known as OneApp, will eliminate discriminatory weed-out procedures by having a computer reduce human error and bias (non-participating Orleans Parish schools like Lusher will have to join OneApp when their charters are renewed). Like the grading system, OneApp is neither a solution for a mindset of exclusivity nor higher order equity problems in New Orleans.

The Louisiana Department of Education’s equity efforts should focus on making sure there is a quality school in every neighborhood. A common-enrollment program without quality schools efficiently shuffles kids between mediocre ones. That’s not equity. Too many advocates prioritize choice before quality in both sequence and effort – this is wrong headed. Common enrollment is needed, but it’s another limited step in the goal of providing quality choices in every neighborhood.

Let’s be real. Lusher is not doing everything they can do to prove their “A” status and provide access to students who need great schools. However, there are those who seek to make Lusher and other schools that do not currently participate in OneApp as the scapegoats for lower performances among public schools across the city. If there were more quality schools in Central City, Gentilly, New Orleans East and other parts of Uptown, the Lusher blame game would be very apparent.

At the National Action Network Breakfast on Jan. 18, acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King said, “[I]n far too many schools, we still offer [African-American and Latino and poor children] less – less access to the best teachers, less access to the most challenging courses, less access to art and music, and less access to the resources necessary to thrive.”

In this regard I want students to have access to places like we assume Lusher to be, but more importantly I want all schools to have the resources they need to make their own name.

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Education Secretary King’s statements should make clear what the role of the Recovery School District should be under new Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’s administration. The Recovery School District should provide both carrots and sticks in ways that encourage the equitable distribution of resources. The state should allocate resources based on students’ needs beyond what is currently happening.

The state should move charter schools back under the auspices of the Orleans Parish School Board so they operate under the same rules. But schools should move to a system that differentiates resources beyond the state’s current formula. Ninety-two percent of Recovery School District students are economically disadvantaged compared with 66 percent of Orleans Parish School Board students. In a system that allowed schools to curate their populations, it becomes almost necessary to address inequitable funding formulas before schools return. In other words, if Orleans Parish School Board won’t make their schools more equitable, the feds or state should.

Educational injustice is a manifestation of the inequalities we’re comfortable living with and within. People who attend and work within many of the “A” rated schools have suspended their abhorrence of discrimination in exchange for the baubles of reputation and control. The gatekeepers of these educational gated communities defend these traditions as if they are freedom fighters in pursuit of justice.

But the real fight for justice has always been about giving families equitable access to quality schools. And that starts with funding.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).