"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Choices on the New Orleans Menu, or Choking Down Charter Schools?

Hurricane Katrina brought Americans face to face with how the poor and the black are treated in an emergency situation. If you were appalled by the surrealistic neglect that you saw on TV in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane, think a moment about how these people might have lived their daily lives in the poor districts of New Orleans when there was no emergency to bring attention to their invisibility. Malignant neglect was and is a way of life. And except for the FBI raids to expose corruption and to develop a case for the takeover by private management, New Orleans Public Schools were no exception. Until Katrina, that is, when the overnigt demise of the school system offered the privatizers at ED a grand emergency that could be exploited to push vouchers and charters on a scale that, heretofore, had been unheard of.

Attention by ED came in a hurry. By the middle of September, the White House had proposed Katrina education relief in the form of $488,000,000 for private school vouchers. There was, too, $20,000,000 of ED cash for charter schools, enough seed money to get the State's attention and to guide their "decision making," just in case they didn't the email. Did this education disaster relief offer to pay any of the $300,000,000 in debt run up by the New Orleans Public Schools prior to Katrina? Or was there any relief for the $180,000,000 shortfall for underinsured damaged buildings that FEMA would refuse to pay? Not a dime for either.

Even the politcally-tone deaf ideologues at ED, however, realized they had overplayed the voucher rescue, and by early fall, the La. State Dept. of Education were meeting to develop a final solution for public schools in New Orleans that would curry favor in Washington. The first step was to wrest control from the Orleans Parish School Board. Easy. The Louisiana Legislature passed a law handing over control to the State for any New Orleans school that fell below the State average for test scores. If this law were applied statewide, it is simple arithmetic, of course, to see that the State would end up controlling that half of the schools falling below the average. In New Orleans, however, it would mean that the State-controlled Recovery School District would control 112 of the 131 public schools that were below State average in school performance scores when Katrina struck.

Being above average has its benefits, besides the more obvious ones associated with wealth and whiteness. Teachers in the surviving 19 schools not taken over by the State will continue to have collective bargaining rights, even though there is not much of a collective when the other 112 schools, once converted to charters, will be governed by building-level decisions on hiring, firing, benefits, and even hours of operation.

Following Spellings' new infusion of yet another $24,000,000for more charters on Monday, the New Orleans solution appears headed for the creation of a system of charter schools, even as the evidence we have tells us that charters are no better and sometimes worse than the schools they replace. If anyone besides ED, itself, put forward such a risky scheme for public schools, ED’s insistence on scientific research to back it up would place any such proposal on the garbage heap. Spellings, however, and her band of union buster will propose anything, scientifically based or ideologically sealed, to chase down any opportunity, disaster or otherwise, to impose their choice and call it someone else's.

Spelling knows that the charter solution that she has in mind will place curriculum and personnel decisions in the hands of school principals, without any of the troublesome union interventions or school board interventions that get in the way of the de-skilling and de-professionalizing of the teacher corps, or the instituting of the scripted boot camp curriculum so popular today as the educational solution for those whose lagging aspirations and loose morals will require constant policing in the future. As Bush's chief domestic policy advisor, Karl Zinsmeister, has said,
. . . in a "soft, often amoral, and self-indulgent age," . . . some children "will be ruined without a whip hand."
Work hard, be nice.

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