Transforming New Orleans … to what?

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Leslie Jacobs’ speech on New Orleans (Catalyst Chicago, April 2007) evokes for me a time long, long ago when it was still possible to believe in simple solutions. Her faith in charters is one example.

On a visit to New Orleans several months after the storm, I asked Jerome Smith, a teacher and activist with deep roots in the city, what he thought of the idea of depending so much on charters. His answer was something like, “It depends on the hearts of the people doing it.”

That’s hard to improve on. The overall record of charters is simply poor. Last week a Philadelphia task force released yet another report showing that that city’s experiment with privatization is yielding disappointing results. “There is little evidence that the substantial investment ($107 million) … has produced sufficient academic success to warrant continuation,” according to the task force. Indeed, schools managed by outside entities had much higher rates of suspension and higher rates of both teacher and student absenteeism.

This is not to say that charters are just a bad idea. On the contrary, I have seen charters that are doing remarkable work. Charters can be a part of a larger solution but not if they are founded in a spirit of contempt for educators and disregard for communities, not if they are motivated largely by a desire to hoard more of the public goodies for the already privileged, not if they are shaped largely by political favoritism.

A recent paper by Leigh Dingerson at the Center for Community Change

captures some of the concerns I have been left with after my visits to New Orleans since the storm. Resources—human and material—are being distributed in ways that are creating vast disparities among schools, and the charter schools seem to invariably get the better side of the deal. Selective admissions policies are being applied in ways that keep hard-to-serve students, including special needs and low-achieving students, out of the best-resourced schools. It’s becoming a system of choice for some people and a system of take-what’s left for others.

National organizations, including some of those with a poor record of achievement in Philadelphia and elsewhere, seem to be having more influence on the process of reshaping the system than people from the city’s poor neighborhoods.

Too many schools are building faculties around young, inexperienced teachers, who, whatever gifts they bring, are unlikely to stay very long and are, in many cases, contractually forbidden from criticizing the schools they work in. How’s that for a basis on which to rebuild a civic culture? There are idealistic impulses behind some of what is happening in New Orleans, but there is also opportunism and political chicanery.

Into this mix, toss Chicago’s own Paul Vallas, recently appointed to head the Recovery District Schools. Anything one says in Chicago about Paul Vallas still invites an argument, but I think even most of his critics would concede that when it comes to bringing some order to a mess, Paul Vallas is not a poor choice (nothwithstanding the financial problems he left behind in Philly).

My guess is that he also has a much stronger sense of the equity issues than is common among state leaders in Louisiana. I suspect, too, that he is so results-oriented that his commitment to charters will have less of the ideological rigidity so common in Louisiana these days. At the very least, given the wars he has fought, he should bring a more realistic sense of the price of improvement than is evident in Ms. Jacob’s view.

Charles Payne has recently been appointed to the Frank P. Hixon chair in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “So Much Reform, So Little Change” (Harvard Education Publishing Group).